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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 23

Greg Bear

  He was hardly breathing hard when he came within sight of Euterpe. Invoking hyloka had restored energy to his tissues and given his senses hallucinatory precision. The brick houses lay in heaps around a central bonfire. He saw mounted Sidhe driving people in lines and clusters ahead of them. Wicks flashed in the firelight. Overhead, the stars seemed to have turned away in fear. The ground glittered with excited pinprick lights.

  He left the road and crossed a hill. Most of Euterpe was in ruins, some glowing as if electrified. For a long minute he stared at what seemed the ghost of the hotel, limned in glowing outline against the fountains of fire, everything else translucent.

  As he watched, the outline evaporated and the hotel was gone.

  Piano music drifted from across town. The courser's mounts reared back and they broke away from their captives to ride back through the flames. Not all of the resistance was broken.

  Michael ran around the outskirts, stopping to listen for the music. It came from the last remaining stand of buildings - from the school. Sidhe on horseback darted up and over the flames as if maddened by the music.

  The Wickmaster stood on a mound about a hundred yards outside the town, lost in thought. His golden horse waited patiently behind him. Michael tried to keep well back from the firelight, but the Sidhe turned and saw him. For a long moment their eyes held; then Alyons smiled, baring ghost-white teeth, and glided onto his horse.

  Michael reversed his run and fled from Euterpe. He wasn't afraid; if fear was a chemical, it had long since been used up in his body. He acted purely as he had been trained. Now it was obvious that his education had been accompanied by a good many subliminal instructions. The Crane Women had tinkered with his aura of memory. He could visualize tactics, methods of escape he never would have thought of on his own.

  There was one instruction which he couldn't quite bring to the fore; nevertheless, he acted on it. The Wickmaster's golden horse glided up behind at a leisurely pace, its master exulting. Here was his chance at the troublesome antros, with no one to hold him back.

  Ahead, Michael saw the outline of giant teeth - a ring of stones, slightly darker than the night. He ran in that direction - into the jaws and to one side, backing up against a smooth round stone carved with spiral grooves. Alyons slowed just outside the ring. "Hoy ac!" he cried.

  "Hello yourself, you cruel son of a bitch," Michael whispered.

  "Antros! You need the Wickmaster's mercy. Come out and join your own kind. They aren't mistreated, only punished."

  "Come in," Michael invited loudly enough for Alyons to hear if he strained; no louder. .Alyons lifted his wick to the sky. The tip glowed dull red. His horse paced between the stones, weaving in and out. The Wickmaster chanted softly in Cascar.

  He's worried, Michael thought.

  "He enters the circle, he must come closer," said a voice behind Michael. He recognized Spart but he couldn't see her.

  "Wickmaster!" he cried out. "What was your disgrace? Did you make your masters angry? Were you the lowest thing in the Maln, a traitor, or just something they could do without?"

  "The Maln," Alyons replied coldly, just loudly enough for him to hear, "Still accepts me. I do my duty in the Pact Lands. I keep the human filth bottled up."

  "They won't take you back," Michael taunted. "How did you insult Tarax?"

  "Shy of the mark," Alyons said. Michael could feel his aura of memory being feather-touched. He blocked the probe.

  "Antros!" Alyons' horse passed into the inner circle, but the Wickmaster was not astride. Michael backed up hard against the cold stone.

  The point of the wick thrust up before his face and glowed bright. Alyons flowed into visibility in front of him and lowered the point to Michael's chest. The Sidhe's armor flashed and rippled like living skin. The maple-leaf insignia on his chest seemed to stand apart from the armor, floating with a vitality of its own and changing from moment to moment to oak, then laurel, then back to maple. Alyons pulled the wick back, preparatory to thrusting, singing in that weird way Michael had heard the Crane Women sing, as if searching for a tune and not finding it, only the tune was present all along…

  The dried grass behind the Sidhe flew straight up, swirling into the night. Around the inner circle of the stones, a spiral of dirt fountained upward, the wind of its passage lifting Alyon's hair. For an instant, the Sidhe poised with his wick and Michael again felt the nearness of death.

  Then the Wickmaster vanished. Out of the ground, with the roar of a dozen freight-trains, rose a monstrous steel snake. It had been coiled beneath the grass, and like a spring it lashed out and gripped the Wickmaster in gleaming steel teeth. Clods of dirt struck Michael all over.

  The snake lifted the Sidhe high into the air. Then, with the sound of strained metal snapping, it broke into sections. The sinuosities straightened and plunged into the dirt like stakes, forming a tripod. The snake's head shuddered at the top of the tripod, in the exact center of the circle of stones.

  Alyons, held like a mouse, reached down to Michael with a trembling arm. Michael walked slowly around the tripod until he could see the Wickmaster clearly, then let up his memory block.

  "The wood, the wood!" Alyons whispered. "Quickly! Call the arborals…" His body twisted violently, jamming the teeth even deeper through his flesh. His bones ground against the metal loudly enough for Michael to hear and die tripod swayed.

  Alyons died.

  Michael had never seen anything like it. Muscles twitching, he looked up at the corpse, fascinated and sick at the pit of his stomach. Alyons had been trapped and executed and he had been part of it. He turned away from the tripod and the limp, bloody Wickmaster.

  Spart faced him. Her hair blew back in the night breeze. "The coursers haven't finished," she said. "We must go."

  "Who made this?" Michael asked, pointing at the trap.

  "Clarkham, who calls himself Isomage."


  "I do not know," Spart said. Her voice was harsh and scratchy and the wind made her shiver. "Perhaps it was his revenge for the imposition of the Pact."

  "Did Alyons know it was here?"

  "Obviously not," Spart said. She closed her eyes halfway. "No more questions." He followed her as she plodded through the grass. Euterpe's flames were dying. Snow fell again, and he noticed with curiousity that when it alighted on Spart, it did not melt, as if she no longer maintained her hyloka.

  "I saw Lamia."

  "So?" She continued walking without looking back.

  "She can't do anything. She shed her skin."

  Spart shivered. "Quiet," she said. Overhead was a rushing, wind-whining sound - one Michael had heard before. He looked up but saw nothing in the smoke-palled sky. Snow fell through the smoke as if conjured out of nothing.

  Michael had no trouble keeping up with Spart this time; her pace was deliberate, less than brisk. "Use your training now," she told him. "The coursers are still out."

  "Don't they know about Alyons?"

  Spart didn't answer. He frowned at her back and shook his head. Even now, she had the ability to exasperate him.

  They dodged between the smoldering ruins and piles of brick and within minutes approached the Yard. It, too, had been demolished. Michael peered over the remains of a thick wall. The pits were open to the night air.

  In the least damaged section of town, they passed humans running, or standing in a daze; townsfolk with shackles around their ankles, staked to the ground; men and women huddled in corners, the smoke and diminishing flames adding to the glazed light of panic in their eyes. He didn't see anybody dead, or even seriously injured. Perhaps the Isomage's threat had restrained the Sidhe enough to spare the town from general massacre.

  Spart clambered down stairs leading to a basement beneath a relatively intact two-story warehouse. She walked ahead of Michael in the dark, and he followed her by the sound of her footfalls, using his hands to guide him along one wall.

  At the end of the corridor was a room lit by glass-chimneyed oil lamp
s. The floor was scattered with smashed wicker boxes and furniture. The brick walls seemed to have been sprayed with silvery glitter that sparkled in a way painful to the eyes.

  In the middle of the room, shoulders slumped, Savarin sat amidst the litter. He barely glanced up as he heard them. His clothes and face were covered with the sparkling dust. He looked down at the floor, then, as if reminded of something, looked up again and fastened his dull gaze on Michael. 'Traitor," he said. "You told them." His voice was flat and lifeless.

  "I didn't tell anybody," Michael said but Savarin was obviously beyond argument. The teacher smiled in a sickly way, shook his head and resumed his examination of the floor. Spart pointed to the far comer of the basement room at a figure seated away from the glow of the oil lamps. It was Helena, her skin and clothes aglimmer. She sat with knees drawn up on a makeshift wicker piano bench. Before her, smashed into the comer, was the piano.

  It had been gutted. Its painstakingly assembled inner works lay warped and twisted a few yards away.

  He walked to her and reached out to touch her shoulder, but she pulled away on the bench, making it shake. "I know you didn't tell," she said hoarsely, turning her face away. She tightened her arms around her knees and pressed her chin against her wrists, rocking gently. "We didn't use the dust. They were here a little while ago. I was playing. It was my only chance to play. We used the piano, we played it. But we didn't use the… what you brought. Here it is." She handed him the bag. It was empty but for a few grains, the tie loose.

  Spart grabbed the bag and pinched it angrily. She took Helena's hair in one hand and shook loose malevolent glitter. "They turned it, they wasted it." She chuffed in disgust and pulled him away from Helena. "They are not worth your time," she said.

  Michael looked back at Helena, uncertain what he felt - sadness, perverse satisfaction at his betrayers laid low, horror and anger that people he cared for could be treated thus.

  "Isn't there any more dust?" he asked.

  "Not for us, not for them. If they try to cross now, the sani is turned. It will attract every monster on the plain." She shook her hand and wiped it vigorously, then pulled him up the stairs out of the basement. When he protested that he had to stay and help, her look asked plain as words, What can you do?

  Nothing. He followed her.

  On the streets, they ran for a short distance, then hid behind the intact corner of a collapsed building as coursers thundered by. "Where are we going?" Michael whispered.

  "You are leaving," Spart said. "With or without the powder. It is your time. You go back with me to the mound, men you go on alone."

  Only now did he remember the book left in the rafters of the hut. He had forgotten it in his haste to leave the Realm.

  "Come!" Spart ran ahead. Instinctively, as the pounding of horses grew louder, he threw shadows. Spart became a crowd of people. The horses halted and reared behind them, screaming with excitement. Michael barely heard the curses of the riders.

  They ran along the deserted and snow-covered road to Half-town. Mottled starlight fell between broken clouds. The smell of smoke subsided. Spart ran as fast as ever and he had difficulty keeping up.

  Halftown lay empty and quiet before them. Spart slowed and walked him through the town, glancing at the empty buildings, then at Michael, as if to emphasize the solitude.

  "Where are they?" Michael asked.

  "They will serve Adonna, those who haven't escaped." That was the whining-wind sound he had heard - Meteorals sweeping in. The Crane Women's pact with the Meteorals had been abrogated. Now was certainly not the time to leave, not if he wished to retain any of his self-respect.

  "I can't leave," he said. "I have to find Eleuth. I have to help."

  "If you stay," Spart said, "the coursers will take you and imprison you with the others. You will be unable to do anything for them. If you escape, perhaps you can help… from outside." She was not telling the whole truth - though a few weeks before, he wouldn't have been able to detect her evasion. And it was Spart who had trained him to be sensitive.

  "Besides, you cannot find Eleuth. She is dead."

  The double confirmation - this time from an unimpeachable source - hit him very hard.

  "She did her best," Span said. "She did well, considering."

  There were tears in his eyes as they approached the mound. The Crane Women's hut was intact, but his own had been knocked over. Biri's had been removed entirely. Michael searched in the rubble for the book and found it pinned between a shingle and a beam, undamaged. He pocketed it.

  Nare and Coom stood behind him. He looked between them, nothing to say, virtually nothing to think.

  "Soon, you are empty," Nare said.

  "Ananna," Coom reiterated. "Ready. Now, never."

  Spart grinned sympathetically. "One more thing, and then you go across the plain, find the Isomage. You must leave your hated parts behind."

  "What?" he asked softly.

  "If there is a part of yourself you don't like, you can be rid of it. You still have too many people inside of you. But that can be an advantage for a while. Sacrifice them. When you are in great danger, make one of the selves you don't like into a shadow. Send it forth. It will be real, solid. It will die for you."

  "That is something you can do, we cannot," Nare said. Coom nodded agreement.

  "Where do I go after I cross the plain?"

  "So positive," Nare said, lifting her eyes.

  "Follow the river to the sea. No matter how far you stray, always the river," Spart said.

  "And what will happen to you three?"

  Nare and Coom were gone already. He seemed to remember their leaving, but not clearly. Spart held her hand in front of his eyes. "In-speaking," she said. "Out-seeing. When you are ready, they are yours. The only outright gifts, man-child. Be grateful. We are never generous."

  Then she was gone, too. He turned to see if they were running from the mound, but there was no sign of them in any direction. The mound was now empty.

  Only dust and old sticks, a few stones, a broken mortar and some pieces of glass showed that their hut had ever existed.

  Michael was on his own.

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

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  The border between the Pact Lands and the Blasted Plain was less well-defined now. Michael suspected the circle of corruption was closing, and that soon the Pact Lands would not exist.

  He stood on a ridge not far from the river, looking down at the indistinct smudge of red and gray and brown creeping across the frosted grass. Where the border crossed the half-frozen river, whirlpools of mud and bloody-looking water left pinkish foam on the ice and shore.

  With no sani, with no weapon but his stick, he was indeed empty - empty-souled and empty-handed. For a moment, after leaving the Crane Women's mound, he had hated himself, but even that was gone now. He was a pair of eyes suspended over a vast mental desolation, swept clear of youthful obstructions - but swept clear of youthful ideals as well; of all things beautiful and inhibiting.

  He slid down the ridge and across the ambiguous border.

  What impressed him most, the deeper into the Blasted Plain he walked, was the silence. There was only the gentle thump of his feet in the dust, raising little puffs. The dust fell back into place, undrifted by the slightest breeze.

  Winter had not touched here. The morning light was patchy and orange and vibrated occasionally as if all the air were a plucked string.

  Michael walked quickly at first, then broke into a run. He passed brown pools and smoking crevices, skirted a lava pillar and picked up his pace. The pillar crawled with tiny elongated shadows.

  After an hour, his way was blocked by a chasm. It was about ninety yards across, the rim separated like book-pages into razor-thin slices of translucent rock. Sand lay flat across the bottom. At regular intervals, conical depressions blemished the sand like the marks of giant bootspikes.

  He walked along the edge for a while, hoping to find a way a
cross. It was a drop of about twenty-five feet to the bottom and he didn't fancy a trek across the sand, but finally impatience and the chasm's seemingly endless length changed his mind. He experimentally kicked at the rock slices. With moderate impact, they crumpled into shards, and he was able to dig and kick an angled descent to the bottom.

  The sand was gritty and hard-packed. He walked quickly and carefully, avoiding the depressions.

  Thus far, he had seen none of the Blasted Plain's inhabitants - unless the worm-shadows of the lava pillar qualified. He was hoping his passage might be easy when a hole directly in front of him enlarged suddenly. He had to scramble to keep from slipping over the edge.

  A bulbous protrusion was visible in the center of the pit. Michael backed away, but not far enough to avoid being sprayed with sand as the protrusion burst like a bubble. He wiped his eyes and heard a deep pleasant voice say, "You don't know what a relief it is to be free of Euterpe."

  Ishmael, the Child who had prophesied in the Yard, climbed out of the pit. He stood before Michael, lank and naked. His long, pale dour face was free of wrinkles but still seemed ancient. He lifted one hand on its thickened wrist. "I've been away from my friends much too long." His thick-jointed finger flicked, and from depressions all around leaped more figures, not all of them as pleasantly shaped as Ishmael. "How may we help you, human?"

  "Let me pass," Michael said. The emptiness inside helped keep his voice steady.

  "All pass who will. Would you like guides? These areas can be hazardous, you know."

  "No, thank you."

  Ishmael sucked in his breath and coughed up a laugh, his eyes jerking wide. "We're the only kin you have here. Don't take all that propaganda they fed you seriously. We're not nearly as bad as our parents make us out to be."

  "Perhaps not," Michael said. "But I'll manage on my own." He glanced at the others. There were seven or eight, all with some resemblance to humans, but for at least three the resemblance was passing at best. Their hairless arms hung to the ground or grew into their thighs; their faces were bad parodies. Ishmael approached Michael slowly, arms held out as if to show his good intentions.