And finally we're all together...
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ariane demanded. She still couldn't believe what she was seeing. That… thing seemed to be able to create something out of nothing, and poor Marc looked like he was just about done in. "You didn't issue any Challenge, we haven't done a damn thing to you, and –"
"He wanted me to join his little club." DuQuesne said, already looking a little steadier… or maybe he was just making it look that way, for their sake. "I declined, and he wouldn't take no for an answer."
"Well, he'll take it now. The answer is no, and we're leaving. Now take down this sideshow stunt!"
The Shadeweaver shook its head elaborately, deliberately. "My dear Captain Austin, you appear under a misapprehension that you are allowed any say in this matter." He studied the group, gaze lingering on Orphan. "I will admit that you humans have so far proved a fascinating group – difficult to predict, defying the usual readings of omen. You have surprised us several times; the fact that you have convinced the Survivor to assist you in finding this place and opening the door, perhaps the most surprising of all."
The voice dropped back to the angered snarl."Survivor! You have dared to act against us? After all that we have done for you in the past, with all that you know of us, you would dare?"
Ariane saw Orphan literally cringe from the Shadeweaver's angry diatribe, a movement so alien when compared to his usual casual, confident demeanor that she felt almost sick. He's absolutely terrified of these people, and I forced him to come here and help us.
"I called in a debt." Ariane said.
"Yes…" Orphan said, looking at her gratefully, "I … had little choice. I owed them considerably, and…"
"…And what of your debts to us?"
Orphan straightened slightly, trying to face Amas-Garao squarely. He did not quite succeed, his own gaze never quite rising to meet that of the furious Shadeweaver. "You… you all had agreed that I had fulfilled any debt with certain actions. That perhaps you might be slightly in my debt."
"Indeed…" the Shadeweaver said, in a more neutral tone. It was clear that he was trying to judge the most advantageous way to play out this scenario.
Behind her, Ariane heard a few subdued clicking noises and a muttered set of curses. "They've got something that shuts down guns." DuQuesne whispered to Carl and Gabrielle. "Probably works on any explosive. We're not blowing the wall down that way."
"Still, you have not yet entirely fulfilled that commitment, have you?" Amas-Garao continued finally. "On the other hand, your assistance to them – while infernally well-timed – has been small; you have merely shown them the way and opened the door. We shall consider our small debt paid, and the Liberated and the Shadeweavers to be even, if you leave now."
Orphan glanced at Ariane. She nodded. "You don't have to do anything more, Orphan. I can see what this cost you. We'll take it from here."
The tall green-black alien hesitated, turned back to Amas-Garao. "I… I had committed to assist them, my promise was that I would be of use in their quest. I do not feel I could say I had done so if I had led them to their deaths or servitude."
The Shadeweaver's hand started to rise, and she could see Orphan restraining himself from backing away. Then the hand dropped. "Were you not one to honor the word given, you would not be one any could deal with, Survivor, so I will not have you feel you have been forsworn. I shall not kill them, nor bind them permanently to my service, though a few commands may be laid on them for the preservation of some of our secrets. Now you have what you have asked, and I give you leave to go; you may pass through the wall, even though no others may."
Orphan turned and began a slow, reluctant walk. He stopped, and looked at Ariane again. "You… you cannot beat him, even the four of you. Do you not know that?"
"Probably… not." DuQuesne agreed reluctantly. "But I did manage to get a shot in on him. There's not much of a chance, but if I spent any time thinking on the odds, I'd never have lived long enough to get here in the first place."
Orphan froze. "You… do not think on the odds?"
Even in this situation, she saw DuQuesne understood the need for caution. Not that keeping our odds-defying attitude secret really matters now. "Well, sure, in most cases… but not when my back's against the wall."
Orphan nodded slowly. "Of course. A cornered creature fights because it must." He turned away, looking strangely shrunken, his stance no longer proud and confident, almost beaten and humiliated, as he reluctantly walked towards and through the glittering wall.
Ariane drew her sword. "You might have ways of shutting off guns, but I don't think you can make a sword misfire," she said to Amas-Garao. DuQuesne began to move to the right as she circled to the left, and Carl drew his blade and began slowly stalking up the middle.
The Shadeweaver laughed. "Cleverly stated, and true, so far as it goes. Yet… it does not go nearly far enough!"
A screaming wind howled down the stairs; she stood againt it for a moment, but it redoubled in intensity and sent her tumbling backwards, to smack painfully into the wall. She forced herself upright, bent down, and began to push her way forward. Another gesture and a mutter of alien words, and the wind concentrated, taking advantage of imbalance and surprise; she felt her sword wrenched from her hand. Carl's was ripped away as well, to dance above them for a moment before being hurled away and sealed into the icy wall.. In her peripheral vision she saw Carl and DuQuesne also forcing themselves towards Amas-Garao; the Hyperion was making much faster progress. Maybe that'll distract the Shadeweaver; if he has to deal with DuQuesne, he won't be able to work on us.
Amas-Garao suddenly noticed that DuQuesne was closing on him, and hurled a crackling ball of energy that sent the huge man tumbling limply down the stairs; to Ariane's dismay, the windstorm didn't decrease in the slightest. Damn. He can keep at least two or three balls in the air at once, so to speak.
"Why the hell are you bothering with this theatrical crap?" demanded DuQuesne as he levered himself upright again. "Okay, you're having a hard time with me, but why not just use your mindtwisting on the others?"
"Because," the Shadeweaver responded, obviously amused by carrying on a conversation during combat, "That does require personal focus. If I were to use such a technique, I would be unable to focus on all of you at once – which would, indeed, be potentially unfortunate for me, or at least quite annoying." Amas-Garao's voice was quite calm now, and eerily audible despite the howling wind. "Naturally, once all of you are unconscious, we will ensure that you will tell whatever version of events we find most useful."
"What about Orphan?" Ariane shouted against the howling wind. "He knows what's really going on here!"
"He is not called the Survivor for no reason, Captain Austin." The Shadeweaver's tone was cynically amused. "He knows not to oppose forces that outmatch him in a direct manner; he does not assault the Embassy of the Blessed, he doesn't contest the sincerity of the Faith, and he does not match truths and falsehoods and power with the Shadeweavers. He will never tell what he knows." He raised his hand. "But while I am no longer injured, I am now a bit bored with this insane resistance of yours. It is time to end it."
The wind was suddenly filled with crackling bolts of lightning, ripping a scream from Ariane, a curse from DuQuesne, and gasps from Carl and Gabrielle.
The voice was Orphan's.
Amas-Garao stared; the wind and lightning died down, but while Ariane thought she could move well enough, DuQuesne was in no shape to take advantage of it, and the others didn't look too good either. Maybe… if Orphan keeps him distracted for a few minutes… but we need time.
"I have been tolerant and generous, Orphan. Do not try my patience further."
"I… I have no wish to. Yet… Yet I must correct a slight… misapprehension, a mistaken impression, that you are giving of me." Orphan's voice shook, but the Survivor stood straighter, and he made a hesitant step forward. "I am also the Survivor because I have, indeed, survived, longer, and through more perils, than many others.
"Indeed… when I think upon my past, is it not so that the odds of my survival to this point were truly poor? Would any of us have taken that bet?" Orphan straightened to his full height, though he still stood stiffly, fear written in every line of his stance, in the way his tail sought to curl forward and around. "I have been found – by your people, once – drifting in the Void, lost in the endless storm and wind between the Spheres. I walk alone, when all others walk together. It was a matter of survival – of the fact that once I knew and thought the truth of my very self, of my own mind versus that of the Great Minds – that drove me to join those I was sent to destroy."
She saw DuQuesne slowly gathering himself, and could see Carl and Gabrielle starting to recover.
Orphan forced his gaze upwards, looked full at Amas-Garao. "In survival – when the blade is at our hearts, when the coils constrict the breathing – odds are no longer the point. For the sake of ourselves, or for the sake of the species, some of us must risk all, and many times we die. Sometimes we die trying to save others, who also die."
"And what is your point, Orphan? Your survival is not bound to theirs."
Orphan's voice shook. "But… is it not? I am the only one of my Faction. I am the Liberated. I am my species, my race, my ideal. I am all of them. I am the only hope for the Blessed, the hope that they cannot even desire while the Minds hold them prisoner.
"You would have me walk away, when I swore to aid them. When I know what you are doing." His arms wrapped tightly around himself for a moment, covered partly by his wings as they, too, contracted tighter. "My survival is not my body, Amas-Garao. My survival is my freedom. I do what I will, because I will it." There was a manic, terrified edge in his voice, but Orphan forced his arms to release, though the hands remained tightly clenched.
Ariane felt as though they should move now, but she didn't. She was held spellbound, watching Orphan fight an internal battle on a scale she could not imagine.
Amas-Garao drew himself up. "Have a great care for what you say next, Orphan of the Liberated," he said softly, his tone that of a blade wrapped in blood-red silk.
"I have voyaged in search of the truth behind the darkest tales of those who sail the darkest reaches of the Arena; I have returned alone after gazing on things no other has ever seen, remembering sometimes only that I dare not remember." Orphan's voice grew stronger. "I have dealt with Shadeweaver, Faith, Molothos, and Vengeance. I have won a Sphere in fair challenge. I am the Survivor.
"And I will tell myself no lies at the behest and in fear of others, even you – for then I have conceded the control of my mind – of myself – to you. Perhaps I will be their enemy one day. But who and what I am, that I shall choose… and never think of the odds, when it is my very self at stake!"
"Then," Amas-Garao said with an almost human shrug, "you shall die defying the odds – for I promised their survival, but not yours!"
DuQuesne tried to lunge to his feet, but there was no chance for him to close the distance. The Shadeweaver's hand stabbed out, and a blaze of fiery light streaked towards Orphan.
But in the same moment, Orphan had moved, one hand dipping into a pouch at his side. As the destroying light came down, the hand came up, and the white-hot flame sprayed off of an invisible barrier like a firehose hitting bulletproof glass.
There was a hint of hysterical laughter waiting at the back of Orphan's voice, but it was strong and clear. "Alas, I failed to remind you – I am also the Survivor because I do not rely on the odds!"
His hand contracted on the odd carven rod, a tiny thing that glittered with hints of lights and circuits and, at the same time, bone and gems, a wand constructed by an engineer, or a transmitter assembled by a shaman. A nigh-invisible sphere of force burst outward, and Amas-Garao staggered.
The four humans rushed the Shadeweaver. He snarled and gestured, unleashing his wind and lightning again… but this time it was weaker, and though it hurt Ariane drove through it, landed a blow. DuQuesne managed to hammer one shot home as well, before Amas-Garao faded and rematerialized a short distance away.
"You've damped his power down?" she said to Orphan.
"Yes. He is very strong, and I do not know anything about how long this device can hold him."
Seeing himself weakened and heavily outnumbered clearly didn't appeal to Amas-Garao; he raised his hand again. "Brothers, to me!"
A shimmer, and another black-cloaked form materialized; this one was broad and many-legged under the cloak, with a clawed upright torso. "We have been discussing this situation, Brother Garao," said Gona-Brashind. "It is our feeling that you must resolve this on your own, as you forbade any others from interfering earlier. I shall of course observe."
Ariane wasn't sure whether the translated curse was anatomically possible even for a Molothos. But she took advantage of Amas-Garao's discomfiture and charged again. This time he caught her in an unseen vise, stopping her cold and tightening, crushing the breath from her, as she stood only a few feet from the Shadeweaver.
At the periphery of her vision, she saw DuQuesne catch Orphan's attention; no words were exchanged, but the two of them seemed to understand the single glance perfectly, timing their lunges precisely. The Shadeweaver tried to evade, but a green-black chitinous knee took him in the side as DuQuesne's iron-hard fist smashed across the face inside the cowl.
That hurt Amas-Garao; she knew, because she felt the spray of warm alien blood from the impact; the taste in her half-open mouth was sharp, acrid. I hope it's not poisonous, she thought as she fell to the ground, no longer held in the Shadeweaver's grip.
The Shadeweaver staggered, nearly went down, but somehow rolled to his feet, sending another storm of energy outward, backing them up. Orphan tried to maintain a grip but was torn free; as Amas-Garao raised his hand to send another attack at him, DuQuesne seized his arm; Amas-Garao disappeared, reappeared, but looked less steady, tired, though still dangerous. Orphan was already on him, and he and DuQuesne exchanged other glances, both of them looking backward for a moment. Their strike didn't seem as well-coordinated.
Wait a minute… She followed their gazes, watched their movements.
I think I see. And if so… She ran to Carl. "You and Gabrielle, follow me!"
Amas-Garao screamed in fury and frustration; every time he almost had one of the two attacking him, the other would throw his aim off. He'd shattered parts of the stairs and left a hole in the nearby wall already.
But they couldn't maintain the rhythm forever. The Shadeweaver's defenses may have been weakened by whatever the thing Orphan held was, but they were far from down, and anger was lending a focus to the Shadeweaver despite his injuries. At the peak of his rage, he shrugged off DuQuesne, and saw Orphan, just two steps below him, stagger, a perfect target; Amas-Garao's hand blazed blue-white and sent a lethal bolt straight for Orphan's chest.
At the last possible second, Orphan dove – a dive so perfectly timed, so accurately calculated, that it was suddenly clear that even the stagger had been a deliberate ruse. And it was far too late for Amas-Garao to recall the blast he had just unleashed.
Blazing starfire thundered into the white-glittering wall, shattering it like glass before a sledgehammer into a billion razor-shards; Ariane, Carl, and Gabrielle were mostly sheltered from their position crouched right against the sides of the gateway, which the wall had filled. Through the settling icy dust the three humans lunged into the street; DuQuesne and Orphan followed a split-second later.
Amas-Garao started down the steps towards them, but pulled up short as an Adjudicator seemed to materialize out of nowhere. The armored figure said nothing, but it was clear that even the Shadeweaver did not care to push things any farther.
"Thus is this encounter concluded." Gona-Brashind buzzed calmly. "While we cannot enforce and will not enforce our will upon you, Captain Austin, I ask – purely as a favor – that you not speak of this incident to the general public. Within your circle of allies and your own people, of course, I would not expect you to be silent."
Help you save face? Okay. Maybe you will owe me one. "I will consider it."
Orphan suddenly dropped the little rod with an oath; it smoked. He gingerly picked it back up, juggled it, and with difficulty replaced it in the bag.
Amas-Garao stared at them a moment; then without another word or gesture, he strode away, fading out of existence. The other Shadeweaver also vanished.
"I don't think this is over, not by a long shot." DuQuesne muttered, leaning on Carl. Carl did not look entirely happy to be trying to support someone who outweighed him by at least a factor of two.
"No," agreed Ariane. "But it is for now." She turned to Orphan. "Thank you, Orphan."
The leader and sole member of the Liberated suddenly collapsed.
And that ends the snippeting of Grand Central Arena. If you liked this, go get a copy, tell your friends, then they tell their friends, soon I have more buyers than a spammer sends out messages and I can write more all the time instead of only on weekends when I get a chance!