And after that spectacular ritual, Ariane gets to ask some questions....
"Ariane Austin, I give you my name, which is Mandallon Ell Ir'Rathsab, my Faction, which is the Faith, and my position, which is Initiate Guide." Mandallon's body language – which seemed, like Dr. Rel's, not entirely dissimilar from that of humanity – showed the lingering excitement and tension,and his tone of voice a firmly-leashed pride trying to break forth as he greeted someone for the first time with his new position.
Certainly not about to break his mood, Ariane smiled and bowed low. "I greet you in friendship and hope," she said, remembering the forms of greeting Nyanthus had used previously and modifying them for the occasion. "I give you my name, which is Ariane Stephanie Austin, my Faction, which is Humanity, and my position, which is Captain. Congratulations to you, Mandallon." She and the new Initiate Guide were near the center of the large room which was serving as a reception hall following the event. It's really almost disturbingly amazing how similar we are in many things. But then if you think about it, this sort of ritual and celebration makes an awful lot of sense for civilizations.
"I… I can hardly believe it myself. It is a miracle in itself, that I stand here speaking with you!" Mandallon's voice was slightly… cleaner, sharper, than Dr. Rel's, and other little details of skin, fronds, and so on hinted to Ariane that Mandallon was quite young, the equivalent of twenty or so. "I had expected to follow the normal path, for another thirty or forty years, before one of the Guides passed beyond or set down his mantle, and even then – as I'm sure you've guessed, Captain Austin – there would be many of us vying for the honor. Instead, barely had I completed the Sevenfold Trail when I am Elevated!"
She nodded, smiling. His breathless enthusiasm felt familiar, much more the behavior of someone closer to her own age than the considered and mature gravitas of Nyanthus, the calculating practical cheerfulness of Orphan, or the omnicompetent confidence of DuQuesne. "Good luck for you, then. But… there must have been an awful lot of older candidates in line for the honor. No offense meant to them, or you, but… why would the Faith select you over what was undoubtedly a large field of more experienced candidates?"
"Symmetry and symbolism, Captain Austin," Nyanthus answered from behind Mandallon, drifting in his mysterious way sideways to stop near Mandallon's side – but still slightly behind the new-minted Initiate Guide, clearly yielding him, in this moment, the pre-eminent position. "You have been born anew as a people, emerged new-birthed into the Arena. You are a new people, a young people, unknown and untried. You do not need an Initiate Guide steeped in ritual and habit, one who has followed a course laid down centuries ago; you require one as young, untried, and ready to learn as yourselves. Not one unlearned or lacking in Faith, of course, but one who is ready to understand others in a way those of us more anchored to the rocks cannot."
"That makes sense," Ariane acknowledged. "So in this case, he was only competing against others who'd just recently completed their preliminary training?"
"Yes, even so. But Mandallon was also chosen by the Creators – not only as you saw today, but also as we saw in our own counsels, for we choose not blindly, but ask that all our great decisions be guided by Their wisdom."
Mandallon's filter-beard and fronds were vibrating oddly at this discussion; Ariane suddenly realized this was probably the equivalent of blushing or nervous shuffling.She smiled at that. "But you still seemed to believe there was potential danger."
Mandallon jumped into the conversation, clearly much more comfortable talking about this subject than listening to what bordered on effusive praise. "Oh, there is always a danger. Even though the Creators may guide us, it is not always certain what their guidance is telling us. Sometimes it is to point out someone who needs to be tested – and may fail – in the most fierce of all fires. It may be, also, that one of the other Guides could fail. It is rare, of course, for how could any Guide have become what … we are," he hesitated almost wonderingly at the "we", then continued, "… what we are without having solidified their faith beyond almost any possibility of breaking? Yet sometimes it happens, and not always for reasons easily understood."
"So…" She wasn't quite sure exactly how to broach the subject she wanted to address; obviously she didn't want to offend her hosts, but what she'd seen raised so many questions. "What… what can you tell me about what I just saw? I mean, I could see a lot of … really interesting things, but my sensors couldn't make much sense of it, and I certainly wasn't actually participating in it."
The chiming buzz of Nyanthus translated as a rich, tolerant chuckle. "Ahh, Captain Austin, how carefully you attempt to ask what sort of trickery we are using on the common people to reinforce the belief." Mandallon visibly relaxed, clearly not having been sure what to say or how he should take the question.
"I didn't say –"
"Of course you did not, and I would have been most disappointed in you if you had." The openwork candleflame flicked open and closed. "I truly wish I could convey the essence of what you saw, Ariane. Indeed I do. For those of us who are a part of it, the existence of something beyond mortal comprehension is as real and undeniable as the stone beneath us. Tell her, Mandallon. Tell her now, while it remains echoing in your mind, resonating in your soul."
The new Initiate Guide took a deep, vibrating breath. "I… I felt myself almost … rebuilt. I felt the strength of the Creators flow through me, burning out my impurity and weakness, replacing it with strength almost too great to bear. For a moment… for a moment, I saw through Their eyes; I could see the Arena, not just Nexus, not just Sai'Daku my home Sphere, but all of it, from impossible center to ungraspable Wall, and for that tiny instant I could understand it, see and grasp where all things were, as easily as I can see and grasp these delicacies laid out for us." He gestured at a nearby shelf running around the hall. "I can barely strain out the essence of that now, but… but now I have tasted their wisdom and scope, partaken of the true nature of All as much as any mortal being ever can, and I know what before I only believed."
He closed his eyes, spreading the filter before him as widely as it would go, took another breath. "And I felt my brother Initiate Guides supporting me, keeping the holy Power restrained within my frame, guiding me to the way to leash it. For we are… how can I say… conductors, channels for the Power. We do not generate it, we merely direct it and permit the Creators to act through us. It takes much discipline and practice to be able to do so reliably and well, and… I have much to learn."
Ariane didn't really know what to make of that. She really sincerely didn't believe in "Creators" in the godlike sense that the Faith used the term. It just … didn't work for her. This place was awe-inspiring, yes, and way beyond her ability to understand, but really, so was Kanzaki-Three or any other major space station. Maybe it was her own failure of imagination or faith, but she just thought that a real deity, or group of deities, would make something that didn't feel, to her, so very… manufactured.
On the other hand, she also believed that Mandallon and Nyanthus were telling her the exact truth as they saw it, and if Mandallon had – even for an instant – been able to apprehend the entirety of the Arena, she wasn't sure but what that would come damn close to being something like a god. Maybe the records of the ritual would reveal something to Simon or DuQuesne.
But Mandallon was speaking again. "…for you and your people?"
She blinked. "Many, many apologies, Mandallon Ell Ir'Rathsab. I was thinking so much about what you told me of your experiences that I have, I am afraid, failed to hear what you just said."
Mandallon spread his six-fingered hands in a parting wave. "There is no need to apologize; if you found wonder in my words, then perhaps I have already begun my work. What I said, Captain, was that as you are, symbolically, my people, from which I was born into the Faith as an Initiate Guide, it is traditional that we do for you a service. Is there anything that the Faith, through the small offices of myself, might do for you and your people?"
Her heart gave a great leap. Could it be…? "There is indeed one very important service that we have need of, and that perhaps you could assist with." She began to tell Mandallon of their need for power for Holy Grail, but even before she was done he gave an apologetic negative.
"Truly I wish that such a thing were in my power, Captain." His tone was sincere. "But it will be a very long time before I could channel such vast amounts of the Creator's power, and convert it such that it became one with your machines. I am sure you realize how very much energy is involved in the use of that device. The Faith does not encourage its new-born Guides to immolate themselves."
Ariane tried to hide her disappointment; how well she succeeded she didn't know. "An understandable precaution, especially if you wish to keep encouraging young people to join the Faith and follow that particular career path." Nyanthus and Mandallon acknowledged that with a small chuckle.
She tried to think. Clearly Mandallon was supposed to render them a symbolic service – it was important to him to do it, and it was certainly incumbent upon her not to waste such an opportunity. But really, what did they need, aside from the power he couldn't give them? The only thing she could think of immediately was securing their Sphere, but didn't know if that was a job you could trust to a newly-minted Initiate Guide; she'd have to ask Orphan exactly who could do it, and what she'd have to arrange. Other than that, what would you need a priest for, except –
And suddenly it came to her, a perfect choice, solving a problem that had been gnawing away at her for weeks. "Mandallon, there is something else that perhaps you could do for us, something that requires much less of power, but much more of care and delicacy."
Mandallon leaned forward slightly. "I wish not to sound boastful, but I was noted for my ability to focus clearly and well on the most minute of details, and none advance to Candidate of Elevation without walking the Sevenfold Path; one of the Seven Parts of the Path is the Way of Compassion."
"There is one of my people, a very skilled and wise woman, who was terribly hurt by our entry to the Arena, because she was relying on artificial intelligences at the moment of transition. She has not truly awakened to herself since, spending most of her time in what seems a near-coma. Is it possible that you could help her?"
Mandallon turned to Nyanthus. The First Guide's candleflame-like structure flowered again, and for a few moments the symbiotic flyers wove their way around both Guides. Then Nyanthus resumed his more usual pose and Mandallon turned back to a rather puzzled Ariane. "I have communed with the First Guide and through him seen the sort of injury you describe."
That's interesting. Again, I detected nothing, so it's not RF communication like our implants can manage. Mandallon continued, "A terrible, terrible thing indeed, one that could shatter a soul as well as a mind, to be reliant on the poor electronic minds that cease as soon as they enter. But though terrible, it is a thing well within our power to alleviate, perhaps even cure. It would be a great honor and privilege for me, if you would permit me to make the attempt."
It was amazing, the weight that seemed to lift from her shoulders. I hadn't even realized how much I'd been worrying about her, pushing it to the back of my mind with everything else that's been going on… and probably a hell of a load of guilt along with the worry. "I would be very glad if you would. Our medical officer has tried all that she can, given our resources, and nothing's worked. And now…"
"Then say no more. Send for me, when you have brought her to the Arena from your Sphere, and I shall make the attempt." Mandallon gave his species' curtsey-like bow. "I thank you for finding such a perfect and admirable service for me to perform. I only hope the Creators will see fit to bless me well that day."
"And I too." She noticed how the crowd had maintained a discreet distance from them, yet remained focused on them – more specifically, on herself and the new Initiate Guide. This is really supposed to be his night, I think. And I don't think I'm getting much else out of this tonight; I need to get this back to the others, get Laila back here, and think it all over. "In that case, Mandallon, please again accept my congratulations and thanks, but I'd better get back to my Embassy and let everyone know. We've all been very worried about Laila."
"Please don't promise too much!" The sudden almost-panicked tone nearly made her smile – it was exactly what any new-minted professional felt the first time they were about to be put on the spot. "I cannot guarantee that I will be able to restore all that she was – only the Creators can do that, and they may or may not. But I will do the best I may, and I am sure she will be far better than before."
"If you do your best, then we ask no more, Mandallon. Don't worry." She bowed again and began to politely make her way through the crowd, which was beginning to close in on Mandallon. She noticed in particular several individuals of Mandallon's own species, but … slightly different in particulars. This time she did smile.
"Something amuses you, Ariane Austin?" Nyanthus was drifting along next to her.
Well, you're getting good at reading human expressions awfully fast. "A bit. I'm guessing that in the Faith, an Initiate Guide isn't expected to be celibate?"
Nyanthus laughed. "Indeed not. Oh, there are variants for different species of adherents, and I have heard of such practices in other religions, especially some of those scattered wild amidst the Spheres, but the Creators did not give to us our ability to go through life with others only to have those of us closest to them give up that most precious gift. You have perceived, then, that Mandallon has a number of admirers at this most auspicious event."
"You'd see the same thing at a similar human event, I assure you." They were approaching the front doors with a measured walk, having cleared the worst of the crowds.
"Mandallon is young, and his people place great importance on formal bonding and family groups. An Initiate Guide, I think I need not emphasize, is a great asset for any family. Although it should also be emphasized that outside of their immediate family, our Guides are carefully sworn never to intervene in matters affecting their own people; otherwise their powers might be used by their people to advance their own causes rather than that of the Faith."
Ariane nodded. "Makes sense. But what if their people try to … well, use the immediate family as a lever?"
The candle-flame openwork suddenly looked rigid as steel, and Nyanthus' voice was hard. "Then other Guides would come, and instruct them in the terrible error of their ways." Just the sound sent a chill down her spine; she had no doubt that Nyanthus was speaking from a personal experience, and the cold and unyielding nature of his voice left the indelible impression that whatever the Guides did would be long remembered… and long feared.
As abruptly as it had gone cold, Nyanthus' voice returned to its usual warmth. "But few indeed are those so foolish; far more seek to ease the way of an Initiate Guide, for all we seek to do is aid others to the path of the true light. I – and through me, Mandallon – thank you again many times for coming and witnessing this most special event for your people. I hope that one day I shall see you, or some of your people, passing through this doorway as more than a simple guest."
She bowed. "Thank you many times as well, Nyanthus," she said, the chill having faded but the memory not ever likely to. "I hope that we shall always work well together, at the least, and certainly I think that you will find at least some of my people passing your doors in that fashion one day." Given the ludicrous things we've believed before, and still do, the Faith is positively sensible; I'm sure that they'll gain a fair number of converts eventually.
The air of Nexus Arena was somewhat cooler than the Temple of the Faith, and had the undefinable feeling of open air – despite the fact that it was undeniably not open air, but just air inside a very big structure. She began walking, heading for the Grand Arcade where it would be easy to find one of the autocabs. The streets were lit, but with a dim light at intervals that permitted one to walk but still emphasized the dark patterns of night above.
As she passed from one pool of light into the shadows between, it seemed that the shadows moved, coalescing next to her like a whirlwind of ebony. She jumped aside with an incredulous curse and drew her pistol.
Yellow eyes blinked at her from the black shadows, that she now saw were robes over a nearly human form. "Your weapon will not be needed, Captain Austin. I intend no harm to you or yours."
Aside from causing me a bloody heart attack, maybe! She forced her heartbeat to slow down and reholstered the gun. "You damn near got shot."
The voice was quiet, yet deep, with a timbre that vibrated like the lowest note of a pipe organ. "Many apologies, Captain Austin. I had arranged the forces to bring me hence when you passed, but perhaps I had misjudged at what distance, or in what manner, to do so. All of us can make mistakes, can we not?"
"I suppose. Even Shadeweavers?"
The responding chuckle was also deep, rippling. Ariane couldn't put her finger on why she found the sound itself disconcerting; perhaps it was something she'd heard elsewhere, a reminder of a voice that was associated with dark and dangerous things. "Even Shadeweavers, Captain Austin. So you've seen them make a great business of bringing another into their service, eh?"
Ah yes. You and the Faith get on like oil and matches. "It was a lovely ceremony."
"I will agree that they are excellent at spectacle, Captain. The symbolism is excellent, the ambience carefully considered, the presentation flawless. All calculated well to engender exactly the sort of reaction you have seen – and no doubt felt, to some extent, in yourself."
"I appreciate their beliefs, and I can't say they're entirely nonsensical. I've heard much sillier religious beliefs. The Arena is very spectacular." She continued walking. The Shadeweaver traveled with her; she tried not to show her reaction when she realized the cloaked figure was literally floating about ten centimeters from the floor and drifting along at exactly her own speed. Hologram or some similar projection? He probably isn't even actually here.
The hidden shoulders shrugged. "Spectacular indeed, Captain. But the Faith delude themselves, and others. Whether they believe what they say, or whether the central Guides know precisely what nonsense they spread, is a matter even we Shadeweavers debate. But they are no more holy than you, or I."
"Maybe," Ariane said with her own shrug. "But at least they haven't tricked me into getting involved in someone else's fights."
The rippling chuckle again, and a flash of yellow eyes hidden in the cowl. "True. At least not yet. But your hostility is so misplaced. Had you not acted, Orphan would not have been in your debt, and your position here would be… far more precarious, in all probability."
"You didn't do that for my benefit." Ariane stopped and glared at him. "I'm sure you had your own reasons. Well, let's get something straight here. You don't ever go messing with my head again. None of your people."
The cowl tilted. "You're attempting to intimidate me, Captain? You have no idea what you're doing, you know. We could be excellent allies, and as to being enemies, you are hardly able to threaten me. I really wouldn't recommend it. But I see you are not in a mood for conversation." They were reaching the edge of the Grand Arcade, and the Shadeweaver turned to go down a side street.
"Now hold on!" Ariane snapped, grabbing the Shadeweaver's sleeve. "I'm not done –"
The world suddenly went black, spinning around her like a top. She staggered and almost fell, catching herself by grabbing something solid at her side. Her vision cleared. "Holy shit."
She stood in front of her own Embassy, gripping the newly-materialized front gate in her hand.