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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 24

Greg Bear

  "After all that time, we're in the mood to help," he said. His tone became more like a radio announcer's - slick, cultured, less and less believable.

  So which part don't you like? Make ready.

  "For so long, our talents have gone unappreciated," Ishmael said, full of self-pity. "Our emotions have been neglected."

  "Stay back," Michael said.

  "Back, back it is," Ishmael said, stopping. He knelt down and peered up at Michael from large yellow-green eyes. "Brother. Born of man and woman. Just like us."

  "Quiet," Michael said.

  Ishmael took a deep breath. "Where is your powder, traveler? Only a fool would cross the Blasted Plain without powder or a horse."

  / believe, Michael thought, that I would willingly cast off most of what I once was. Like my foolishness and blindness. Can I cast off those things?

  No answer. It was his own decision, his own risk.

  Or my reckless defiance. If I had looked at things more closely, and opened my mind to how they might turn out, perhaps Eleuth would still be alive, and Helena -

  No, there had been little or no fault in his behavior toward Helena. He couldn't make a shadow from unpleasant memories.

  / wish to cast a shadow of the self that took advantage of Eleuth.

  For a moment, two Michael Perrins stood in the same spot on the Blasted Plain. Ishmael opened and closed his long fingers. His mouth opened wider and wider until it seemed he had no jaw; his lips peeled back across flexible but very sharp teeth. His face became all mouth, all teeth, the eyes receding and the tongue darting out thin and silvery like a knife blade.

  The skin of the Child's shoulders split and blood poured down his chest and arms. Rank brown nettles and thorny vines crawled from the split skin and twined around the mourn, then slid down the rest of the body, the thorns piercing and grabbing hold.

  "Time to become real," Ishmael said, his tongue clacking.

  The other Children went through their own transformations. Both Michaels remained calm.

  What I did was not all that bad, said the Michael about to be sacrificed.

  But you cannot be all of me, ever again, said the Michael about to escape. You are past.

  He stepped aside. The Children moved with astonishing speed toward the shadow Michael, wrapping thorns, teeth, arms, claws and unnamed organs of destruction around him. The shadow screamed and Michael felt a sudden weakness as he ran across the chasm.

  Ishmael lifted his mouth from the consuming and wailed, lumbering to his feet to follow, but Michael was already kicking aside the sheets of rock and climbing the opposite cliff. He sliced his hands and lay one shin open from knee to ankle, but made it over the top and stumbled on. The pain didn't slow him much, once he was back on the powdery flatness. The dust flew up into his wounds and his blood fell back into the dust, beading like tiny rubies.

  He clutched the book in his pocket. The book was sanity, words from home, arranged by those who had never been where he was now, who had lived in relative normality and worked in quiet to craft their poems. His fingers rubbed the leather spine through the cloth, and he thought of who and what he had just left behind to perish.

  Atonement. Survival.

  Yet strangely, the emptiness was less profound now. He had lost; he had gained.

  He could see the far border of the Blasted Plain, and beyond, the mist and the tall, snow-dusted tips of trees. The lava pillars had become sparser and smaller, more like vertical stacks of slag doughnuts than pillars.

  At the border the mist swirled opaquely, like a spill of milk in water. From where he stood it looked tangible, more spider's web than fog. He was less than a hundred yards from the border, yet he slowed, then stopped.

  Something long and sinuous stretched above the mist and peered down at him. It was the skull-snail, heads and blood-red eyes searching, body dragging the macabre shell behind. Michael tried to judge how slowly it moved and how much chance it had of catching him if he ran across the final stretch.

  It emerged from the mist with an audible sucking sound, its body rippling peristaltic. The skull-shell lurched behind, dragging a smooth furrow in the dust.

  What did it want? It wasn't moving so fast he couldn't outrun it; it didn't seem to be threatening, as ugly as it was. Its multitude of stalked eyes focused on him, outer edges arterial, inner circle venous. The body glistened like oil on a dirty puddle. Michael half-crouched and held his ground, back prickling at the thought that the Children might have followed him out of the chasm, or were burrowing beneath to pop up in front of him again.

  The skull-snail halted, its momentum pushing it a yard or so farther in the dust. The shell changed colors, jagged bands of brown, black and red crossing its surface. The arm which issued from the "nose" cavity rose seven or eight feet higher and formed a very human mouth.

  "Take me with you," the mouth said. The voice was female, unfamiliar to him. "Take me with you," it repeated more quietly. "I am not what I seem. I do not belong here."

  "What are you?" Michael asked, glancing around quickly to see if he was being decoyed.

  "I am what Adonna wills."

  His memory was being tapped, but he didn't opaque the aura. The skull-snail's voice sounded like a Sidhe's and he was curious to know why.

  "Who are you?"

  "Tonn's wife," the skull-snail said. Tonn had been the Sidhe mage mentioned at the Kaeli. "Abandoned. Betrayed. Take me with you!"

  Michael walked a wide circle around the creature. It made no further move toward him. "You are a mage. Take me where I might live again. And I will tell you where Kristine is."

  "I'm sorry," Michael said. "I'm no mage. And I don't know who Kristine is."

  He passed through the bitter-tasting mist and over the border. The skull-snail raised its eyes higher but fell silent as it watched him go where it could not. He walked two dozen yards into the wintered forest before he began to shudder uncontrollably The creature's plea echoed in his head, the voice so lovely - the shape so grotesque, as if a curse had been laid on by a particularly creative and perverse sorcerer.

  He lay down on the icy grass in the snow-shadow of a majestic oak and cleansed his hands with rime, then rubbed his face and eyes.

  It felt like years had passed since he last slept. He damped his body's pains, tried to ignore the signs of suppuration in his wounds and relaxed in the now-dripping grass until his eyes closed.

  It was night when Michael awoke. A light breeze whispered through the tree leaves overhead, brushing their silhouettes over the clear gem-like stars. Flakes of snow wobbled down from the leaves, melting as they struck his clothing and skin. The fresh cold smell of frozen grass sap and crushed leaves met him as he rolled over on his side.

  He had strayed north of the river when he had crossed the chasm. Now, to wash his wounds and clean off what remained of the dust from his passage, he stood on wobbly, prickly legs and tried to find the water again. The cut on his shin hurt the worst and his leg felt swollen. His hands were tender, but he wasn't using them nearly as much. For a moment, Michael felt light-headed, and then his feet splashed in the cold reedy shallows and he wriggled his way through the ice.

  He sluiced his wounds thoroughly, then bound them with the reeds, spreading some of the astringent sap on them as the Crane Women had taught him, it seemed centuries ago. In a few minutes his light-headedness passed and he stood in the shallows and removed his clothes to wash more thoroughly.

  As he sat on the bank, allowing the night breezes and his heightened body heat to dry him, he listened to the noises of the woods. He had no idea whether he was past the worst of it or not. He felt at peace, however. After so many months in the barren Pact Lands, and the difficulties of his training, he had time to be truly alone, to search for himself in the middle of all his experiences. What he found - now - didn't displease him, but he knew rough edges remained, even entire personalities still to be sacrificed.

  And however peaceful it seemed here, he had not left the Realm.
  He wished for some light so he could read the book, but the starlight, while bright, was inadequate, so he massaged his legs with his wrists and forearms and tried to connect with Death's Radio.

  Failing that, he whistled for a few moments before he caught himself - looking around guiltily - and then began to make up a poem, speaking under his breath.

  How often death is simply love.

  Make way, make way for the new!

  He couldn't go anywhere with that fragment, nor could he force more lines. Being at peace, it seemed, was ill-conducive to poetry - at least for the time being.

  And what in hell did he mean, anyway? Eleuth had killed herself for love - he had killed a part of himself, a kind of counter-sacrifice___

  The leaves rubbed against each other, tree-boughs swayed, snow fell, the grass hissed faintly and the river rumbled in its bed, making the frozen reeds snap.


  Michael was instantly on his feet. His hyloka vanished and the cold sucked up his warmth. A few yards away, standing in the darkness with wick in hand, was die tall, unmistakable shape of Alyons.

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

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  Michael tried not to show his terror. He tried to restore his warmth and control the beating of his heart, which threatened to explode in his chest.

  He had seen Alyons crucified by the steel snake. He had watched the life and blood drain from the Sidhe, and had heard him call for the Arborals___

  And now Alyons stood before him, grinning as if nothing had happened. Michael knew the Sidhe were even less likely to return from the dead than humans, yet here was evidence to the contrary - solid-looking, terrifying.

  Alyons advanced slowly and stared at a point over Michael's shoulder. "Why so frightened, human?"

  There wasn't a thing Michael could say that wouldn't seem ridiculous.

  "You thought you could be rid of me so easily? That you could save your people from their own stupidity?"

  Michael kept still. His hyloka flickered back, but he shivered from fear anyway and the returning heat didn't seem to help. "I didn't-"

  "Yes, man-child? Stupid, weak man-child."

  "I didn't kill you," Michael said.

  "No matter."

  "I didn't… enjoy seeing you die."

  The Sidhe shrugged. They faced each other in silence for a long minute. The Wickmaster's coat flapped in the gentle night breeze; his red hair looked black in the starlight. His eyes were distantly reflective, like mirrors seen from miles away. Finally, Michael backed off. Alyons didn't move.

  "You are dead, aren't you?" Michael asked. He could feel nothing inside Alyons; there was no aura. Or… he hadn't yet learned how to use the boon.

  "I am dead," Alyons confirmed. "Beyond hope even of the trees. And if you didn't kill me, then you led me to the circle, tempted me in. It's all the same."

  "I didn't know."

  "If you had known, I wouldn't have been trapped," Alyons said. "I would have read your knowing. Or do you think I was a complete fool?"

  "Sidhe don't leave ghosts," Michael said. Evidence to the contrary…


  "Then what are you?"

  "I am grief, Antros. Your grief, my grief. I am emptiness, not even one left. My horse wanders and does not take a rider now. You have wronged me twice, man-child."

  "I don't understand."

  "You drew me to my death, yet you did not claim your prize. You disdained."

  Michael was now several yards from Alyons, one foot behind the other, prepared to turn and flee.

  Alyons gestured to the woods. A horse emerged from between the trees. It was wounded on its withers and rump, and its eyes were wild with recent danger.

  "Kill a Sidhe, claim his horse. Disdain the horse, double the insult. You are very stupid, man-child."

  "What do I do?"

  Alyons pointed to the horse. "Take rny epon. Do not waste all that I was. Surely, a Sidhe horse will be valuable to you…"

  Indeed, it would, but Michael no more wanted Alyon's horse than he desired the Wickmaster's company, "I can't," he said. "I don't even know-"

  "Tell it, 'I am your master, you are my soul.' It will know you then."

  "Why do you want me to have it?'

  "I have no wishes, no wants. It is the way things have been done. Only a human would not know instinctively.. it is the way."

  "You're a shadow," Michael said, revelation dawning.

  "With no wishes, no wants… and no time limit, if the horse is wasted." He folded his arms as if prepared to patiently wait forever.

  "You'll go away if I take the horse?"

  Alyons nodded once. "I am not here now. It is only your ignorance that shapes me from darkness. I am nothing but grief and violation."

  "Then I take the horse," Michael said. The shadow pointed his wick at Michael and the horse paced over to him, turning behind Michael to face the image of its former master.

  "The grief remains," the shadow said, growing darker. "But the violation is ended___" Then, with a harsh braying laugh, the image became as black as the distant trees and blurred into nothingness.

  Michael convulsed violently, throwing aside his fear in a single paroxysm. The horse regarded him with large, puzzled gray eyes. He reached out tentatively to touch its muzzle.

  "Gift horse," he said. "You must have crossed the Blasted Plain alone… or perhaps he, it, led you." Michael peered into the night where Alyons had stood, as if the shadow might still be there, awaiting its chance. A hundred thoughts plagued him. What if a Sidhe could impress his essence in an animal after death - what if the horse still obeyed the Wickmaster? It could throw him, kill him…

  Yet as Michael probed, there wasn't the slightest taint of the Wickmaster in the animal. And he could certainly use a horse in his journey.

  He lay back in the snowless lee of the oak and regarded his undesired mount for an hour before going to sleep again.

  The day was well along before he awakened. The horse kicked frost from the grass and ate breakfast. Michael was ravenous; hyloka had to get its energy from somewhere, and he suspected he wouldn't stay warm for long without substantial food.

  "Where do we find something to eat, hm?" he asked the horse. It shook its mane and kept an eye on him as it ate. Michael stroked its flank softly, then approached its head and whispered slowly, carefully into its ear. "I don't know if you understand English, but I am your master. And I hope I have room… now… for you be be my soul." The horse nuzzled his palm and jerked its head back.

  "Ready to go, eh?" Michael said. No sense trying to mount as the Sidhe did. He climbed on as best he could, gripped the mane and nudged the animal.

  The horse tensed its muscles under him uncertainly and tossed its head. Then it broke into a trot. Michael laid himself low against its neck to keep trees branches from swiping at his face.

  There was very little food in the wintered Realm. He survived off a scant supply of red berries gleaned from bushes and was glad for them, and for the crazy character of the Realm's seasons, that bushes should bear fruit in winter. With so little food, his hyloka became undependable, and he quickly learned how to concentrate what warmth was left and light fires with his index finger. It wasn't as neat a trick as the ones Biri had performed, but it made him suspect that his abilities strayed at least a short distance into the domain of magic. He warmed himself by the fires and melted snow for drinking. The horse survived well enough on frozen grass, but gladly drank some of the snowmelt, and stayed close at night when the fire burned and smoked.

  After some days of that kind of fire-lighting, Michael noticed that the finger was losing its nail. He was soon able to peel back the skin and remove the nail completely. He thoughtfully tossed it in the middle of his most recent blaze and watched it blacken and shrivel. The consequences of certain kinds of discipline began to worry him from that moment.

  Within a week, he traveled about two hundred miles - there was no way he co
uld be sure of the distance, if distances were ever reliable in the Realm - staying near the icy river. He was hungry all the time and growing thinner. He longed for the porridge the Crane Women had. fed him, so bland and so wonderfully filling…

  On the eighth night, huddled close to his fire with woods all around (and this was a small forest!), the horse standing nearby with its head lowered and eyes hooded, Michael thought about killing the animal and eating it. Part of him remembered Biri immediately after his ritual horse-eating; another part fondly remembered the taste of solid food. He tried the grass, but it was bitter and clearly not fit for humans. He tried bark, or rather chewed on it while searching for grubs, but the bark tasted like quinine mixed with lemon rind and grubs didn't exist in the Realm. He did manage to make a fair tea from the bark, using a queer scooped-out rock as a pot in the middle of the fire, and rolling a cup from the unstewed bark. He thought some of the trees might be laurel, because the leaves were shaped and smelled like the bay leaves his mother had used in cooking; others were obviously oaks, but lacking acorns (and he wasn't sure he could have prepared acorns for eating, anyway - did one do more than just steep them in hot water after crushing?). By far the majority of the trees were now huge conifers with needles thick as iceplant leaves.

  He saw no other animals.

  On the ninth day, the pines gave way to more oaks and laurels; the air grew warmer; the snow became patchy.

  Within ten miles - about an hour on horseback - the seasons began to change. The trees had never lost their leaves and the grass had never browned off; when the Realm's erratic and premature spring appeared Michael found his first food and wept for joy.

  There were fruit trees everywhere, standing unarrayed in wild orchards, bursting with fruit untouched by any but himself. Apples, pears, peach-like fruit with brown-striped skin, large cherry-like clusters that clearly tasted alcoholic. There was even a pulpy, salty fruit that grew on the laurel-like trees and satisfied his craving for meat.