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Challenges of the Deeps: Chapter Twenty Two
Last updated: Saturday, November 19, 2016 19:13 EST
Wu Kung found himself feeling an incredibly rare tinge of apprehension, as well as awe, staring at the thing that had just become visible through the mists of the Arena’s Deeps.
Silhouetted against a backdrop of dull crimson clouds, it was black as night, an angular shape of incomprehensible vastness. An ebony stitching of criss-cross darkness that looked like monstrous girders, great arching curves with hints of fluted, organic shapes rising about a central assemblage of contours that implied some gargantuan onyx flower of alien and unsettling aspect.
Ariane’s voice echoed Wu Kung’s own nervousness. “Orphan? Is that –“
“– our destination, the home of Vindatri? Indeed, Captain Austin.” Though his voice was relaxed and controlled, Wu could smell a great deal of nervousness from him. He may have a duty to fulfill here, but this Vindatri guy doesn’t make him comfortable.
“And he lives there alone?” DuQuesne asked. The tones and DuQuesne’s posture showed how wary his fellow Hyperion was. “That’s an awful lot of house for one guy.”
“Not alone, entirely. Later in my … stay with Vindatri, I did see and meet others who were apparently his servants. And as I said, there is a Sphere not far away.” He gestured, and Wu could see, through the clouds a faint hint of form, a curve of an artifact larger than Earth. “I believe that Sphere to be inhabited, although I have never actually landed upon it.”
Ariane was studying the huge, shadowy assemblage. “Where exactly am I heading? There’s an awful lot of that thing — if I’m getting the scale right, it’s something like three or four thousand kilometers across!”
“Larger than that, Captain. If I recall correctly, I docked at –”
A quiver ran through Zounin-Ginjou, and Wu tensed, seeing that the position of the distant shadow had shifted slightly in the forward port. “What was that?”
Orphan’s wingcases had compressed, and his stance was rigid; the scent of tension and even fear was suddenly sharper. But he answered in his customary relaxed tones, “Ah. I believe the decision of how to approach and dock has been taken out of our hands. Note that Zounin-Ginjou has already altered its course.”
Wu felt very little other motion, yet the … Castle of Vindatri, as Wu Kung had to think of it, began to swell before them at astounding speed, as though Ariane had set the engines on full power and was driving them towards collision. “Crap,” Ariane muttered. “I sure hope this Vindatri doesn’t fumble the ball at the last minute, or we’re just gonna go splat when we hit.”
The alien structure rushed closer, expanding beyond the width of the forward port. Glints of light — diamond-white and emerald green, shimmering ruby and sapphire, warm amber — became visible, dotting the forbidding megalithic blackness with jewels set on a crown of night; Wu could now pick out hints of detail, of scalloped planes and oval ports and sharp-edged lines of decks or floors.
A cavernous opening yawned before them, six lines of white light guiding their uncontrolled, headlong rush down the center of a landing bay so huge that it seemed to Wu that it could have held a fleet of ships like Zounin-Ginjou. Without more than the tiniest jolt, the massive warship of the Liberated came to a halt, its incredible speed reduced to nothing in less time than needed to draw a breath, and settled into a cradle that rose from the massive deck, a structure of dark metal and glinting crystal that enfolded Zounin-Ginjou as though made for it. Wu heard both his human companions exhale shaky breaths, and Orphan’s spiracles whistled once more.
“It seems,” Orphan said after a moment, even his voice wavering with uncertainty or fear, “Vindatri is very eager to meet with us.”
“Have you ever returned here before, Orphan?” Ariane asked, rising slowly from her pilot’s seat.
“Once, long ago… in part, I must admit, to verify to myself that he and this place truly existed. I had the… item that I used in our confrontation with Amas-Garao, yes, but I had never yet used it — nor had good reason to at that time — and that experience was so unheard-of in the annals of the Arena that I had to remind myself that I had truly experienced it.”
“I get that,” DuQuesne said with a touch of humor. “We felt a little like that about the Arena.”
“Indeed.” A wing-snap of decision and, Wu thought, a touch of bravado. “Well, friends, shall we greet our host?”
Ariane and DuQuesne nodded. “No time like the present,” Ariane agreed.
Wu immediately stepped in front of her. “Bodyguard, remember?”
She smiled. “I remember,” she said. “Do what you have to.”
Orphan led the way. DuQuesne took the rear, which made Wu feel slightly more comfortable; this would let him focus mostly to the front and sides. Ariane made no protest about being in the middle.
The main lock from Zounin-Ginjou opened to reveal a wide platform already in place outside of it. Stairs led down to the dark-polished deck of the massive installation. It is all dark; it feels like a fortress of one of the underworlds. Even the Dragon’s Palace was brighter-lit, and that was at the bottom of the sea! He reached back, touched Ruyi Jingu Bang, reassuring himself that the mighty staff was still there. Though it is not a thousandth as mighty as it was in the real-dream of Hyperion, he thought sadly. Against this Vindatri it may be of less use than the floating drift of a dandelion.
The dim-lit volume was silent save for the echoes of their motion. Orphan stopped a short distance from the bottom of the staircase and looked around, then raised his head and arms. “Vindatri, you have guided us thus far; where must we go?”
The echoes of the question had not even died down when four lines of fire sketched themselves through the air, arrows of brilliance leading across the great landing bay and then splitting to follow separate paths. Each line was a different color, and all four started in the air scarcely three feet in front of Orphan: a line of red, a line of green, a line of blue, and a line of pure white.
“Wonder which is which — or whether it matters,” DuQuesne said.
“I have little doubt that it matters,” Orphan said. “But it may be that the selection is nonetheless up to us.”
“In that case, I’m taking blue,” Ariane said. “Always been one of my colors.”
“I refuse to choose another color,” Wu said. “I am following Ariane. I am responsible for her.”
“I agree with the principle, Wu,” said DuQuesne, “but my guess is that you’re gonna find out it’s not that easy. Me? I’ll take green; has a little resonance for me in the space-exploration context.”
“I see,” said Orphan. “White is, I believe, for me.”
“Still not taking red,” Wu said.
The four of them made their way across the deck, echoes of footsteps chasing themselves around the nearly-empty room. Finally, they reached the point where the paths split, and Wu could see that there were four separate staircases; one turned and went straight off to the right into blackness, the second bent right for a short distance than turned back to go ahead through a dark archway, the third similarly went left for a short distance and then turned back ahead through a different archway, and the last turned left and also faded into darkness. Ariane’s blue took the strong righthand turn; the neglected red line turned to the far left, while green and white took the middle paths.
Wu Kung continued up the blue line, glancing back to make sure that Ariane was following. When he turned his attention back to the glowing line of light before him — a delay that was no more than the blink of an eye — he saw a brilliant scarlet streak leading into distant darkness.
He spun around, to see Ariane and the others staring at him; Ariane stood with one foot in the air, frozen in the act of following.
Wu Kung growled faintly and started for Ariane again —
— to find himself marching with the same angry determination up the red line of fire.
Now the growl was a snarl. “I am her bodyguard and you do not get to take me away!” He whipped Ruyi Jingu Bang off his back and commanded it to extend; DuQuesne and Orphan ducked out of the way as the pole streaked out to place its one end in front of Ariane. “Grab on, Ariane!”
“Wu, I don’t think this is going to work,” Ariane said reluctantly. “But… okay.” She grasped the golden ball at the end of the staff tightly.
“Good!” He retracted the staff slowly, following along until he reached Ariane. “Now keep hold, okay?”
“All right,” she said.
“Now we can go!” he said, confidently stepping forward.
The line of fire was suddenly red, and he felt no other hand supporting the great Staff. His cheeks burned under his fur with embarrassment. “All right, you coward sorcerer! Come out here! You are mocking me? I will beat your face in!”
“Wu!” Ariane’s voice was sharp, although he could hear a note of sympathy too. “We are visiting his stronghold. He seems to want us to play by his rules. Please, try not to antagonize our host, no matter how… peculiar his behavior is.”
He snarled again and stamped his foot, causing an echo like a gunshot to chase its way around the room half a dozen times. Then, seeing DuQuesne’s remonstrative look, Wu swallowed, closed his eyes, and forced his breathing to slow, his meditations to begin. It was not easy; besides his anger, other, unsettling thoughts insisted on intruding. Like Sanzo. So like Sanzo. Even the same commands as Sanzo, sometimes.
Finally, he felt a semblance of balance and calm returning. “As you command, Captain. But I will still be angry with this Vindatri!”
“Be angry all you want, but behave, Son Wu Kung. Do you promise?”
He rolled his eyes. This was all so unreasonable. But it was not the first time he had had to deal with unreasonable people… and this sort of negotiation had been part of the Journey to the West, and he had learned that, often, Sanzo was right about not starting fights. And Ariane probably is too. “Yes, Captain. I promise I will behave myself.”
Decision made, he turned and began loping down the direction indicated by the red fire. The faster I finish whatever is ahead of me, the faster I can go back to guarding Ariane! He gritted his teeth. She had better be all right, or I will somehow teach this “Vindatri” a lesson!
The darkness ahead was not so dark to his own perceptions, and he could see that there was an archway through which the leading line of light passed. The light shrank before him at the exact speed of his own progress, so the line always started just a short distance in front of him. That’s a nice trick. I remember how one of Guyamaoh’s underlings could trace lines of smoke and flame sort of like this. He had to admit it was pretty, a bright crimson shimmer that receded ever before him like a rainbow.
Up another set of stairs and finally the light ended at a door, an oval affair set in the metal wall, with a wheel in the center. He tested the door, found it did not move, and so grasped the wheel and turned. It yielded smoothly, and with a clack he heard a lock or latch disengage. The door swung easily back now, and Wu Kung stepped through into a pitch-black space. He advanced cautiously, on guard, all other senses extended; he heard nothing, smelled nothing but faint traces of oils and metals and old, alien scents of things long gone.
Abruptly the door behind him slammed and the latch engaged. At the same instant, lights blazed on, illuminating the room as brilliantly as day, and in the glare before him was a tall figure. As his eyes adjusted and he could make out the figure before him, Wu Kung felt his jaw dropping and the staff in his hand sagging down.
“Took you long enough,” said the towering gray-skinned form of Sha Wujing.
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