Well, we'd heard that Sun Wu Kung had got himself in trouble (is anyone surprised? Bueller? Beulller?); let's see how, and what kind of trouble it is...
"Go enjoy yourself for a little bit, Wu. I'm heading back to the Embassy to give Ariane the good news."
Part of him wanted to protest that he should probably go back, but… finally on my own in the Arena! So many things to see! So many things to do! "All right, DuQuesne! I am sure she'll be so excited to hear Simon's already located one Sky Gate!"
"I'll bet she will." The big, dark-haired man grinned back. "Now behave yourself as much as you can, okay?"
I will! I'll make sure I don't cause trouble! "I promise!".
"Good enough. See you back at the Embassy." DuQuesne waved and then loped down the rampway, quickly disappearing in the distance.
For a few minutes, Wu just stood there at the top of the ramp to the black-sparkling gateway, watching the unending traffic in Nexus Arena. It's like the Promenade of Heaven, or the entrance to the Celestial Emperor's palace!
He remembered DuQuesne's words: " A place where a thousand races of… of demons and gods walk and speak, where there are worlds floating in the clouds, where you can fly up to touch the suns or sail a ship off the edge of the sea into that infinite sky", and he laughed aloud. It's so true! The thousand races of demons were here – the round-bodied, spidery Milluk, the claw-handed Molothos, the moving-tree with its singing spirit-aides that was a Rodeskri, toad-faced Daalasan, three creatures with tri-horned heads that Ariane had called Dujuin, and so many more; he'd seen ships and a distant world drifting in the endless sky through the giant window-room DuQuesne had stopped off in on their way to Humanity's Sphere; and he'd seen the blazing Luminaire and knew that he only had to fly up and he could touch the sun of the world. Though that would probably hurt!
"Greetings to you, Sun Wu Kung," a deep, resonant voice said from near his elbow.
He whirled, staff coming up reflexively. I didn't sense it approaching me! That's –
The tall figure was dressed in black robes, only a hint of shape, a glint of eyes, showing within the cowl. "Oh, that explains it. You are that wizard that Ariane beat, one of those Shadeweavers."
A chuckle rolled from under the shadowed hood. "I am Amas-Garao, yes. You are an interesting newcomer. An associate, perhaps a former comrade, of DuQuesne's, I perceive."
"We've been friends for a long time." He looked suspiciously at the cloaked figure. "What do you want?"
"At the moment? I merely wished to speak with you, to see you closely. I had observed a few… intriguing aspects of your nature upon your arrival, and speaking with you has afforded me more opportunity to evaluate you."
Gives me a chance to evaluate you, too, Wu thought. There was a power about this one, definitely. He wasn't something you went after casually. And he had the smell of a warrior, someone accustomed to fighting, not one who would retreat from combat. Still, he stood at a short distance, the way of a sorcerer whose battles were fought with spell and fear, not hand and claw. Not far enough to make a difference for me, but maybe he's not used to people like me. "Well, I hope you see something interesting. I'm just looking at all the people here."
"It is, in truth, a magnificent and always changing sight," the Shadeweaver said. "I have spent many hours here, watching the interplay of species and the formation of alliances even in the shadow of the Gates."
Wu Kung nodded, thinking. "You want me to do something, I guess," he said at last. "Ariane said you're always trying to get people to do what you want without telling them somehow."
Another laugh. "Your Captain is an interesting being indeed. And what do you believe I wish you to do?"
Wu laughed and spun the staff between his fingers. "Oh, I don't know. Your kind's always hard to figure out, with plans that twist in on themselves like a badly tied knot. It doesn't matter – either I will do what you expect or I won't, but either way it will be what I wanted to do." He gathered himself and bounded down the stairs. "Bye!"
The Shadeweaver didn't follow; when he glanced back there was nothing but a quickly-fading mist where Amas-Garao had been. Maybe I'll go to the Grand Arcade now!
It was easy to get one of the elevators down, and then to head off in the direction of the Arcade. As he was half-walking, half-dancing his way through the crowds, something caught his attention, a small lone figure – even shorter than he was – followed by a much larger group of assorted creatures who seemed to be speaking at him.
The movement … the way the little figure kept walking, straight, tail rippling behind, just a hair too stiff… it was familiar. That… I remember that…
"Monkey!" they called, and laughed at him. Some did not laugh, but looked down, faces filled with contempt and disdain, and sometimes with fear. He was in Heaven but they did not want him there, with his sense of fun and energy; they drove him out and so he played a prank on them, and they did not laugh; only Wu Kung laughed, he and his monkey friends, when he could visit them. So the others, the spirits and gods and functionaries of the Heavens mocked him behind his back, even as they asked him for his strength, and when he retaliated they grew even more angry.
And in the end their anger made even Buddha turn his back and he was sealed away for so long that nearly he forgot everything except bitterness, joy fading in darkness… until the stone cracked and an innocent face looked up at him, a face that held no malice or envy or hatred, a face of such purity so that he could not strike her.
Sun Wu Kung looked again, and saw them still following the little figure; young, or perhaps not as young as they looked, but though they were a half-dozen different species somehow he knew the expressions. Without even thinking of it, he strode towards the tiny white-and-purple figure walking towards the Powerbrokers' area. As he approached he could hear fragments of words, and most often repeated was the word "Sphereless".
That doesn't sound nice at all! Though… Spheres mean something else here. But what does it mean, then?
He turned and began walking stride for stride next to the little figure, which was also armored in some enameled white and bronze material. He smells… very angry, barely leashed. "Hi! I'm Sun Wu Kung! Who are you?"
A scent of startlement. The small creature looked up. "You do not know who I am?"
"No… wait." He walks like a real fighter. A warrior. Wasn't that in the briefing? "… are you Tunuvun?"
"Oh, wow!" This person was a real fighter then! "I saw your race-battle with Sivvis – not in person, because I wasn't here in the Arena then, but I watched it! You were amazing!"
Another set of insults were hurled from behind, but for the moment Tunuvun seemed more interested in Wu Kung. "Hm. You move as a warrior yourself. I thank you for the compliment."
"Just the truth." He glanced pointedly backwards. "So what is their problem with you?"
"Is it any business of yours?" Tunuvun demanded sharply. Almost instantly he covered his face with his hands and bobbed slightly, a gesture that, with a shift in scent, Wu interpreted as an apology. "I do not intend hostility. You are of the new Faction, yes?"
Tunuvun's eyes narrowed. "Then you may, perhaps, not understand that to have no Spheres in the Arena is to be no citizen at all. We are of no account except as we may be useful to those above us. There are times I regret any of us being found by the peoples beyond the skies."
"Why are they bothering you, though?"
Tunuvun gave a hiss. "Because they hope to force me to lose my temper. To give them Challenge, or a chance for Challenge. I – my people – have now one chance, one chance only, to Challenge and win a world of our own, to no longer be 'Sphereless', and I dare not lose that chance. Some of these are just … tzykiss, children of no account, wandering visitors who are amused by bothering me; but others I think are agents of my enemies, and would hope to trap me in some Challenge I cannot win." Tunuvun gave a hiss that sounded to Wu like the Genasi warrior was spitting on the floor. "And the Arena does not permit me to do violence to them inside Nexus Arena."
Wu whirled suddenly and pointed his staff. "Why don't you leave him alone?"
"Mind your own path!" One of the larger participants – a broad, multi-legged creature like a quadrupedal hippopotamus with an upright torso and massive arms – snapped.
"Ha! You cannot make me be quiet either, can you?" He spun about and presented them with his rump, tail whipping about, and let them have a good view, punctuated by what Wu thought was a most satisfying burst of flatulence. "You are all cowards and fools without honor."
"Would you Challenge us over this?" another voice asked. Ha, he sounds like a schemer. The speaker was a tripedal being with three manipulative members atop a circular body.
"You are not worthy of a real Challenge," he answered. "You taunt someone who dares not reply because he has too much to lose. Whose lickspittles are you, trying to trick a Challenge from a being who can give only one?"
"Ha, then," said another – a Daalasan – "perhaps you seek to get us to Challenge you?"
"How about a not-Challenge challenge?" he countered.
"A bet, a simple wager, no worlds in the balance, no Challenges mediated by this huge Arena, just your group against me and him; I'll even drop my Staff, just bare hands."
"A fight?" The group of aliens, two dozen strong, looked at him with unmistakable skepticism. "There is no fighting allowed in Nexus Arena."
He pointed past the Powerbrokers to the Docks. "But those are not in Nexus Arena… are they?"
Tunuvun had said nothing; he was just watching now, his posture uncertain.
"Clarification," said yet another of the group, this one a low, crablike creature which must have massed five hundred pounds yet moved swiftly on multiple jointed legs. "You propose that the two of you will fight our entire group as a wager. What are the stakes, then?"
"If we win, you – and everyone associated with you – stops trying to bother Tunuvun and his people. They'll give their Challenge soon enough. Don't try to mess it up for them!"
"And if you lose?"
Wu realized he was now in a spot that he should never have gotten himself into. But I had to! "Then… then I'll have to Challenge one of you of your choice, and you get to take Humanity on in whatever challenge you like to put us in."
A murmur went through the group at the mention of Humanity. I don't know if that's good or bad.
"You are mad, I think," Tunuvun said conversationally, but the tone was both respectful and surprised. "You risk all this for one you did not know?"
"I saw your fight. I know your spirit. That's what matters."
"All right," the huge multilegged hippo-creature said, and there was an ugly chuckle that rippled through the crowd… a crowd that now looked even larger. They somehow called more people in! "The two of you and all of us, Dock Two. Right now?"
News had already started to spread. Wu saw people moving in that direction, spectators, perhaps gamblers wagering on the outcome. As he passed through the doorway to the vast expanse of the Arena and Dock Two, a green ball of light popped up.
"Sun Wu Kung," Ariane's voice said sharply, "I hope to god that Mandallon had things wrong –"
"I am sorry, Captain Austin, really I am, but I'm about to be in a fight, so I will talk to you later! Bye!"
The green ball sparkled red, then vanished.
Wu gestured to Tunuvun. "Run – let us get space, or they will try to mob us right away."
Even as the larger group poured out onto Dock Two, Tunuvun sprinted with Wu up the hundred-meter-wide Dock; workers and travellers and traders ducked out of the way, running to their ships, clearing a wide space. "I hope," Tunuvun said dryly, "that you are as good at fighting as with speaking, Sun Wu Kung."
He grinned savagely. "We will see." He took his staff and put it off to one side.
The twenty-nine aliens suddenly charged forward.
Tunuvun gave a high, uluating cry and went to meet them; Wu laughed and charged as well.
He remembered DuQuesne's emphatic orders. Must not show them everything I can do. He also remembered how good Tunuvun was. That's it. I'll match Tunuvun. If he's as good as he looked…
Both of them were small – Tunuvun a meter and a half high, Wu a scant few centimeters taller – and they used that, ducking under the first wave of assailants, rolling between their legs and grasping members, coming to their feet simultaneously, as though moved by the same thoughts. A spinning whipcrack of white and purple and a Sai'Dakan tumbled limply away; Wu laughed and delivered a hurricane kick to the head of the hippoid creature that made it stagger and go to its front knees. This gave Wu a chance to vault up, bouncing from the creature's own back above the heads of the crowd, twisting himself around and coming back down atop the crab-thing.
Hands grasped and pummelled; some of these people were not amateurs, not in the least, and they evaded Wu Kung's blocks, caught and hammered him down to the unyielding dock with an impact that drove the air from his lungs, even as he saw Tunuvun fly past, trying to recover from some huge impact.
But he could twist around, now, fur smooth and loose and hard to hold, he was free, a knee lock on a neck here, tail grasping another there, pull hard, wham! and two more assailants collapsed to the ground.
Tunuvun had just taken the full brunt of a Daalasan's swing; he just laughed in a high-pitched voice and shrugged the impact off. Great! He's really strong!
Wu ignored the next strikes and punted a Milluk over the heads of the crowd; the creature almost went over the edge of the Dock before spectators caught it. The Hyperion Monkey King could hear the excited shouts, the murmured bets, see the ebb and flow of the crowd. I have to be careful, he thought, sensing a swift-moving strike. I don't think Tunuvun could avoid that one, so I can't, either.
The kick hit like a runaway cart and as Wu skidded over the Dock, knocking down both opponents and spectators, he realized with surprise that it had been the multi-legged hippo creature. Boy, he's a lot faster than I thought!
Focus, got to finish this! Roll to your feet, they're coming, the remainder are tough and more organized, maybe eighteen left standing, but they're not getting in each others' way now. Tripod-head and a green eel-thing coordinated, moving fast, Tunuvun's out of the way, kick the tripod-thing's near leg out from under him and jump out of the way, come down on eel – look out, another behind us, a Salaychen, all armor and edges, bounce off eel, land on armor, punch as hard as Tunuvun seems to, crack goes the armor and it's in more pain than it can handle, it's down, ow! Something hit me, got to get up—
And suddenly there was stillness, nothing moving around them, just him and Tunuvun standing and a distant clump of spectators whose shouts echoed into the vast beauty of the Arena.
Wu realized he was actually breathing faster. Still… not all recovered from my long sleep! I will have to do a lot more exercise!
Tunuvun surveyed his fallen tormentors and then turned giving a spread-armed bow to Wu. "We have seen victory today, and I thank you."
"Hey, it was fun!" Wu said.
Tunuvun's straightening and a baring of teeth was so clearly a smile that Wu laughed. "It was indeed fun, Sun Wu Kung, and in more ways than just the joy of combat! Perhaps you and I will one day meet in combat as well, but for now I am glad that you chose to taunt my own enemies and led them to this battlefield."
"I look forward to another fight – with you or against you!" He looked at their fallen adversaries, who were slowly rising. "Remember our bet!"
The hippo-like being shook its head slowly. "We… will not forget. The Genasi shall be left unmolested until they complete their single Challenge."
Sun Wu Kung gave a leap of triumph.
And then the green ball reappeared. "Sun Wu Kung. Get your ass back to our Embassy right now."
Wu winced. "I think I'm in trouble."