Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 22Greg Bear
The fire surrounded her. Arced outward to the snow-covered grass. Melted the snow into steam. Dried the grass and set it ablaze. She twisted in her own fire, mouth open to reveal darkness much deeper than the night. Michael rose toward her and felt the cold electric destruction of the power she had unleashed.
"Please," she said, barely audible over the crackle and roar. "I will guard. Careful! Out of love-"
She became smaller and darker, twisting in the fire until she receded to a black point.
Michael was no longer on the grassland but high above, looking out across the infinite expanse of the Realm, its forests, plains and mountains laid out beneath him like a topographical relief map. The river snaked far to the northeast through forests, scrub lands, blank desert and swamps. There was a mountain surrounded by a city with walls like a tangle of silvery roots -
And a black, spiky something beyond.
To the north he saw a broad lake glowing cobalt in the night - Nebchat Len, possibly. Beyond the lake stretched more forest, and beyond that massive jagged mountains. Looking down, he saw the Pact Lands mounted in the middle of the Blasted Plain, a yellow-green circle surrounded by warm, forbidding orange-tinted darkness. This darkness seemed to writhe, rise up to grab him. Then everything writhed - and vanished.
He could have been suspended in nothingness for all eternity. The sensation of time left him. In the void was a flicker of light, somewhere above where his head had been. He was aware of a canopy of leaves, then of something beneath his feet, hard and gray. His circle of vision expanded. His head filled with rushing blood, and the sensation of weight returned.
Michael closed his eyes and rubbed them. The rush of exultation was dizzying. He wanted to jump, to shout. He glanced at his wrist to see what time it was - what time the trance had come to an end. But his watch was missing. He still wore the clothes Helena had scrounged for him; his feet were still shod in cloth.
A flicker of fire played around his ankles. He stared down at the fire, watching it brighten, fade and brighten again. Suddenly it flared up around his calves until it obscured the sidewalk. Tendrils rushed to wrap his wrists like shackles and crawl up his chest like serpents.
"No!" he protested. "NO!"
He doubled up as if kicked in the stomach. Curled, he flew backwards into darkness, winding along a jagged reverse course and surrounded by a comet's tail of fire.
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Michael lay on his stomach, gravel and dirt pressed to his face. His legs sprawled across dry grass. He opened his eyes to the twilight and saw dark bushes with greasy green-black leaves. Rolling on his back, he encountered a featureless gray-blue sky, low and oppressive. A few muddy stars glistened wetly in the expanse.
Something rustled nearby. The path on which he lay crossed a yard of sickly grass and ended at a red brick porch. Dull orange paper lanterns hung on the trellis arbor rising over the porch.
He got to his knees. The rustling became louder. He stood, turned and flinched from the touch of dry, cold fingers against his face.
The figure in the flounced dress was less than a yard away, arm bent at two crazy angles and pointing toward him. The shadow of the wide-brim hat still obscured the features, but Michael was more certain than ever that it was a woman, caught between the Realm and the Earth, probably as crazy as Lamia. He wondered what he had to fear from her.
She advanced, lurching as if one leg were shorter than the other, or improperly jointed. The sleeved arm stretched out again and Michael smelled dust, mildew, something metallic. He backed away several steps. He had been home -
You are home.
The voice, soft as the still twilight air, reached around his ears and touched the back of his head. You are home. He focused on the fingers of the hand. They were thin, colorless; they could have been twigs wrapped in strips of coarse cardboard. They flexed against each other with the sound of rustling leaves.
Beyond the guardian was the gate leading to the alley. He looked over his shoulder for the merest instant, trying to see if he could go back through the house - reverse his course - but there she was, barring the way. When he wasn't watching she could move with incredible speed. He faced her and slowly backed toward the gate.
Stay. Images of incredible luxury, voluptuousness. Gardens filled with flowers and thick vegetables, luscious ripe berries studding intense green bushes. Tomatoes red as arterial blood.
If he stared at her - she was gaining on him, lurching - she might catch him. Already her hands were reaching out, her fingers rustling in anticipation. If he turned to run for the gate she might leap quick as darkness and have him anyway.
She played him like a fish on a line. He was trapped, no way out this time. There was only one way for the trance to end - in her garden, caught between the projected paradise and the dry, somber twilight reality.
Reality. As real a doom as any.
Still, he had learned a lot since he had last encountered her. There might be one way to elude her.
He searched for the hidden impulse, found it feeble but present. Between the Realm and Earth it would work only intermittently, weakly. Still, he had no choice but to try. He threw a shadow.
The gate seemed an incredible distance away - only a few yards. Behind he heard drapes of fabric shustle frantically, sensed the arms closing around something, passing through empty air. The guardian screed like a bat or a falcon.
He ran down the alley. Sixth gate on the left. But he no longer had the key! He couldn't open the lock, couldn't pass through. He felt rather than heard his pursuer leaping after like a wave of foul dead air.
At the locked sixth gate, he did not hesitate. He ran to the seventh, some yards farther, and found it without a lock. He jerked it open, making the rusty hinges and spring scream.
The guardian's hand grasped his shoulder and flung him back as if he were made of paper. He toppled and slid across the pavement, rebounding from the brick wall opposite. The gate slowly closed, its spring softly singing. He knew he would never have time to open it again if it latched.
He would never reach it, anyway.
But the guardian held back, rocking on hidden limbs like a nightmare toy, a puppet pulled by idiots.
He pushed against the wall with arms and shoulders, leaping, using all his new prowess to make it through the gate. The gate clanged shut behind him.
Michael stood in a long, narrow lot, bordered on all sides by low red brick walls. Some distance away over the end wall he could see the outline of the rear of Lamia's house, the Isomage's mined mansion.
Perhaps the sixth gate wasn't the only way.
Bordering the path that led to a gate in the distant second wall were two continuous trellises, thickly wrapped in dead brown ivy. He hurried between them.
"Not that way!"
He stopped. The voice had come from his left, as much a dry croak of pain as a warning.
"She will have you before you reach the end."
"Watch for her!"
The voices came from the ivy-covered trellises. Against all his instincts he slowed to a walk, his legs cramping with fear and indecision.
Then he discerned them. They were caught in the vines, limbs entwined: corpses. Emaciated, skin slumping like dry leather, jaws gaping, arms and legs skeletal, eyes hollow. But their heads turned to follow him and they strained against their bonds, lips pulled back over yellow teeth.
"Don't let her have you! Die first!"
"Watch for her!"
"Not that way. She'll get you!"
In fact, the gate seemed farther away now than when he had begun. The closer he came, the more it receded and the longer the trellises were. And the more writhing mummified bodies he saw in the grasping dead ivy.
"If she has you, you never die…"
"If she loves you, you sleep…"
"And awaken here."
p; Maniacal laughter all around. The corpses struggled horribly, pieces of skin flaking off to the ground. Some reached out to him, imploring; others strained their hollow chests against the vines, heaving and thrashing and shaking the trellises until they seemed in danger of falling over.
The guardian was on the same path now. He hadn't seen her pass through the gate; perhaps she didn't need to. As she walked, the wide hat swung slowly from left to right. She surveyed her past victims, lurching down the path to certain conquest over another.
She collected them. Had them, used them, placed them here. She savored her collection, her work well done. This was her paradise of vegetables and succulent fruits, the garden of her labors.
He half-ran, half-stumbled crab-wise, trying to find the center of impulse again. But he had no clear way to throw another shadow. The guardian, dress flapping and pressing back against her distorted frame, had risen a foot or so above the path and was accelerating toward him like a piece of fabric on a spinning clothesline. She pitched head-forward in her flight until the hat pointed directly at him and the dress fanned out, a deadly trailing blossom.
He turned and fled from his doom, screaming.
Ahead of him, Eleuth stood on the path, so close he couldn't avoid colliding with her.
And passing through. He stumbled and fell on the ground. Glancing back, face contorted, he saw the translucent Breed woman spread her arms before the hurtling guardian.
They merged. There was a drawn-out cry as the fabric and distorted body tangled in mid-air and fell to the ground like a downed bird. Michael ran. The gate at the end of the lot was much closer. He reached it in a few strides, opened it, looked back at the guardian still crumpled on the pathway and saw Eleuth's final shadow gently spinning with the force of their collision. It floated off the path, fading, fading, until it was gone completely.
Michael stood on the field behind the homage's house. With a hollow clang, the gate latched itself and the wall vanished.
Once again he looked out across the Pact Lands, down the slope to the broad river. His breath was ragged, his elbows and knees were scraped and bleeding, his head hurt abominably.
The trance was far from over.
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It was late afternoon in the Realm. From miles away, Michael could smell smoke. A thick column of black rose over Euterpe. Hardly able to walk, he crossed the field and went to the front door of the Isomage's house. In the distance he heard thunder and indistinct shouts and screams. Then the wind shifted and all was quiet.
The parlor, ballroom and dining room of the house were empty and silent except for a noise like sand or dust falling. He wasn't sure what to do next so he climbed the stairs. He wondered if he should confer with Lamia, ask what had gone wrong with his journey and what was happening in Euterpe.
He didn't particularly wish to know.
The room of candles was deserted and dark. He crossed the wooden floor, footsteps echoing sharply even though he still wore his cloth shoes. The room's echoes were like returning knives - breath, heartbeat, rustle of his fingers against his chin.
He noted, with a start, that he was beginning to grow a rough beard.
He walked farther down the hall, away from the open landing. Shadows ruled the house; all the candles sat unlit in their sconces or lay shattered on the floor, as if someone had despised their light. "Lamia?" he called, quietly at first, then louder. His throat still hurt from his screaming in the Between. He brushed one hand against the wall, venturing into the darkest recesses of the hall. The wall vibrated like a bell at his touch; the entire house seemed alive, yet fearful, shrinking back.
He touched a doorjamb and turned into the doorway. From a half-drawn curtain, twilight snuck into a small sitting room. Lamia sat in a chair facing the window.
"Please," Michael said. "I need help."
She didn't answer, didn't move. He approached the chair cautiously, fearful of her bulk, her quiet, her fierce concentrated expression as she faced the waning light.
For a moment, the dim lighting and the folds of her skin had concealed the fact that she was unclothed. She sat naked and still in the large chair. Michael was convinced she waited for him to come close enough to reach out and grab. But nothing moved. She didn't even appear to breath. Was she dead?
He reached out to touch her shoulder. His finger curled back involuntarily into his palm and he forced it to straighten.
Hie skin gave way beneath his finger, first an inch, then two. Repelled, unable to stop, he continued pressing. She hissed faintly and her head folded in like a collapsing souffle. Her arm and chest began to collapse and she fell into a pile of white translucent folds, sliding from the chair to the floor.
Not Lamia, but her skin - shed completely. He bent down and rubbed it between his fingers. Such a familiar texture. He had felt something like it before - in the closet downstairs, when she had hidden him from Alyons.
She kept a closet full of her own shed skins.
But then, where was she? Hiding someplace, vulnerable, like a soft-shell crab or snake still damp and tender?
He swiveled on his heels and saw her in the room's opposite comer. She was dressed in dark gray and blended into the shadows. She was even more huge now, perhaps half again as tall and fat as she had been. Her voice was deeper, more appropriate to the mountain she was becoming. Everything about her was vibration as she stepped forward, from her cheeks to the flesh of her hands.
"You tried to go back, didn't you?"
His mouth was dry. He nodded. She came within two yards of him and stopped, momentum swinging all her flesh toward him like a cresting wave… and resilience drawing it all back until the motions damped themselves out. He couldn't see her eyes in the fleshy folds of her face. The nose - tiny and surrounded by flesh - was her last identifiable feature but for her hair, which was glossier and more luxurious than before.
"The Breed girl. I heard about her. Lirg's daughter."
"How did you hear?"
"Hear many things," Lamia said. "Even when I'm…not quite up to my usual. Why didn't you cross?"
"She didn't get me all the way. I mean, she did, but only for a moment. Then I was drawn back."
"The Guardian? Meet her?"
"And you escaped."
Nodded again, only once, to signify just barely.
"Your little Breed girl sacrificed herself for you."
"What?" Though he knew.
"She wasn't even half Sidhe, boy. She couldn't do all that and survive the consequences. Even so, her life wasn't enough. You're still with us." This seemed to amuse her, and a little tremor passed through her, accompanied by a deep muffled chuckle. "Do you know what happened while you were gone?"
"How long was I gone?"
"Days, I suspect. Do you know?"
He shook his head. Her smell was dust and roses and acrid, sweating flesh.
"Your little rebel friends decided to defy Alyons. The Wickmaster has never been even-tempered." Again the deep-buried humor. "There's nothing I can do. Not now. They could have picked a better time. Now Alyons has what he's always wanted - a chance at the humans. To level them, make them pay for intruding."
"What's he doing?" Michael asked, his throat almost closing off the question.
Lamia peered down at her shed skin. "The guardian. She's my sister, boy. We were Clarkham's wives. Lovers, actually. He brought us here. There were fine times then. Dances, all the people rallying around the new mage. The Isomage, he called himself then - equal to the Serpent Mage. Come to bring everybody out of the shadow of the Realm, into the light of his rule. Oh, he didn't hate the Sidhe. He didn't hurt them, not really. He could work magic with music, with what the Sidhe taught us long ago. He was very proud. Soon, he claimed he was the mage reincarnate - born again to avenge what the Sidhe had done to the original human race. His arrogance became too great for the
Sidhe to bear. The Black Order sent their armies against us. That was the war… the war that made the Blasted Plain." For a long moment she was silent, the folds of her face working. "He was not the mage. He could do magic, but he couldn't win with it. He could only lose a little and call it a draw. He fled. He gave us up, my sister and me. The Sidhe made their Pact with him but he gave us up. He claimed he had buried powerful magic here, fatal to any Sidhe who transgressed the Pact. He'd fought well enough that the Sidhe had to believe him. So he bargained. He set aside the Pact Lands and put all his people - he thought of them as his own - right here. The Sidhe shrunk the boundaries by half, to let the Blasted Plain act as a barrier. Keep their females from human temptation. Keep themselves pure."
"Are they fighting in Euterpe?" Michael asked.
"What would you do if you knew? Go and save them all? They're fools. They only get what they deserve. Though I'd fight the Sidhe myself if I could. In a week, I'd be able to. If your rebels had waited a week for their foolishness - - But now I'm in my curse. I eat nothing and grow huge. I shed my skin like a snake and my flesh is fragile as unbaked clay. You, you could grab my arm and tear it off, if you wanted. Here's your chance." She held out her arm. Michael backed away. "But I'll toughen, as I always have before, and the power he left me, that'll come back. Then Alyons will pay, if he hasn't already."
"Please. What are they doing?"
"They made my sister into the guardian, to keep humans from using the Isomage's pathway. She still has a touch of humanity, maybe? She doesn't catch all who would cross. Not you… maybe she held back a bit, seeing what you are."
"Tell me!" he demanded, neck muscles cording, lower lip contorted.
"Scourging," she said. "Scarbita. Alyons is the Scarbita Antros, and there's nothing you can do."
Michael ran from the room, down the hall and stairs. The sky was on the thread's edge of night as he ran down the road, trying not to focus on the smudge of orange light against the night.