Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 30Greg Bear
Nikolai stood and peered around the edge of the shelter. "They're coming. Be prepared. Almost anybody can show up here."
"What are the snow faces?"
"A mystery," Nikolai said, sitting again. "In a place where everything is a mystery to us, we can see something that is mysterious even to the Sidhe. I like that. That's why I come here."
The first pilgrim to join them in the shelter was wraith-like, tall and deathly thin. Michael noticed bright red hair beneath a white hood, and the pale gray eyes of a pure Sidhe. But the look the pilgrim gave Michael and Nikolai had no menace in it, only deep exhaustion - of both body and mind. Michael probed his aura and saw nothing but darkness, as if even memory had guttered out. The Sidhe nodded cordially to Nikolai and sank to his knees on the rock floor.
Five others trooped in one by one: three more Sidhe, one human - heavily wrapped in white - and a Breed. The Breed was a young, strong-looking male, tall and with stiff pale blond hair, dressed much like Michael. At first, Michael couldn't tell if the human was man or woman, old or young. It wore two wooden cups over it eyes, with slits to see through - a precaution against snow-blindness. When Michael probed the human's aura, he pulled back as if burnt.
He had never touched such naked spiritual pain and ugliness. He was left with the impression of foul cancers and leprosy, creeping vermin and monstrous, all-consuming greed.
The five new pilgrims gathered in the lee of the barricade. The trio of Sidhe removed their outer garments and stood naked in the dark nook, hardly glancing at the others. The exhausted-looking one regarded Michael with deep-sunk eyes, then probed his aura gently. To be polite, Michael allowed him access to certain information - language, vague origins.
Nikolai had met them before, apparently, and introduced them to Michael. "This is Harka, Tik and Dour." Harka, the tired-looking one, nodded. Tik and Dour might have just entered maturity; they were younger and more robust and they lacked the calm jaded equanimity of the older Sidhe. "The one bundled up, that's Shahpur - last name I've forgotten-"
"Agajeenian," came a muffled voice through the wrappings. The voice was pleasant, a surprising contrast to what Michael had briefly touched within.
"And I don't believe we've met before," Nikolai said to the Breed.
"Bek," the Breed said, lifting his palm. "My first time. When are we off?"
"When the wind lets up," Shahpur said. His voice seemed more beautiful each time he spoke, very like a Sidhe's. Michael wondered if he had been mistaken in the first probe and tried again. The foulness was indescribable and for a moment he had to struggle to keep from throwing up. The Sidhe stayed away from Shahpur, who said nothing more.
Nikolai tried to keep up conversation. His efforts died. Soon they all stood or sat behind the barricade with only the whistling roar of the wind and the crack and rumble of distant avalanches.
Light was fading, making the shelter even darker. Suddenly the wind stopped its bitter assault, leaving only a hollow and fading echo, like the moan of a dying horse. The silence was profound, almost having its own sound as Michael's ears adjusted. Shahpur looked around the edge of the barricade and moved out onto the trail. Bek followed, then Harka, Tik and Dour. Nikolai and Michael left last.
"Sometimes I think this is a shameful thing for them," Nikolai said, nodding at the figures ahead. "I wonder why they even come. Harka grows worse every year. If he was human, I'd say he was dying, but Sidhe don't get physically sick."
"He's blank inside," Michael said. "Maybe they have another way of getting sick. What's wrong with Shahpur?"
"Ah." Nikolai shook his head. "He is cursed. Like me, he wanders the Realm, but the Sidhe caught him once. He escaped, but not before they had their fun with him." The heavily bundled figure turned stiffly around and regarded them for a moment. Nikolai pursed his lips and shut up.
The path followed the contours of a nearly vertical face of granite. Far below, pinnacles of rock spiked through roiling layers of cloud. Their feet crunched the snow gathered in windblown patches along the path and their breath cast almost tan-gible mists that hung in the air like markers of their passage.
Tik, Dour and Harka were the first to reach a narrowing of the ledge. They turned with their backs to the abyss and sidled along the face, at one point stepping over a yard-wide gap where the ledge had spoiled away. Shahpur, Michael and Nikolai had a more difficult time spanning the gap, and Nikolai's foot slipped on the opposite side. Michael grabbed hold of his hand and drew him along to a wider portion, where they lay against the face and took several deep breaths.
"That was not there before," Nikolai said. "The path gets more dangerous every season."
The ledge widened to a broad, rounded lip, giving them at least the illusion of security. Around a blade of rock that had fallen long ago from some higher spoiling, they saw the object of their journey. Shahpur followed the leading Sidhe and the Breed, and Nikolai pressed ahead of Michael, panting and cursing.
They all gathered on a broad rock stage before a deep cave-like hollow. "The mountain," Nikolai said. Many miles away, yet as clear as if it stood just yards before them, was Heba Mish. "No one knows how tall it is, not even the Sidhe."
Far below the rock stage and cave, clouds poured into a deep chasm, leaving behind wisps which slowly unwound and vanished. At the bottom of the chasm, a deep blue-green slope of ice accepted the falling cloud and scattered it into broad rivers of mist, which slid down worn, rounded grooves. Michael felt dizzy, peering over the rim of the stage. He lifted his gaze and followed a sheer flank of delicately poised snow on the mountain. The white mass reached three-quarters of the way to the peak before being sullied by outcrops of black rock.
"Now we wait," Nikolai said. As if at a signal, the three Sidhe and the Breed moved back into the cave, leaving the humans to listen to the silence.
"What are we waiting for?" Michael asked.
"The Snow Faces," Nikolai replied.
Night came and Michael lay comfortably enough on the chill cave floor. Nikolai slept restlessly beside him. Shahpur sat on his haunches, appearing to be awake. The Sidhe sat with legs crossed, lined up against the opposite wall of the cave.
Michael couldn't sleep. He kept trying to probe Harka. The wraith-like Sidhe's aura was virtually empty of any memory, as if he had been created just moments before, with no ancestry and no past. Michael wondered if certain Sidhe chose to wipe their lives away. There was a way it could be done with the discipline, boiling memory off with a kind of focused hyloka. …
Nikolai grumbled and opened his eyes. "Waiting is miserable," he said. "Especially here."
"How do you know the right time to come?"
"I have my contacts. Word gets passed along. Arborals whisper, or I listen to Amorphals in their deep cavern homes. Or another wanderer, like Bek or myself or Shahpur, hears about it and the pilgrims begin their journeys. Then we gather. I've always used the stepping stone from Inyas Trai. Others hike and climb. Some never say how they arrive; they just do. Not always, not every season… sometimes not for years.
"I've heard the sign first appear* in a pool in the Irall. The pool is very deep, with ice at the bottom, and the Sidhe watchers know, when it turns black as night, that the season is coming. They pass the word in secret… Adonna might not approve of Sidhe regarding a genuine mystery." He rearranged his legs and closed his eyes again. "In the morning, perhaps, when the wind rises again."
Michael lay in a state between sleep and waking, much like the state he had been in on his second night in the Realm, while perched on the rock waiting for the warmth of dawn.
Orange light slowly filled the cave, accompanied by a low, deep hissing. Michael stood, stretching his cramped legs. Nikolai did likewise, complaining bitterly.
The sun was rising beyond Heba Mish, reflecting from the westerward mountains and casting a dull purple backlight on the snow slope. Clouds in the east became bathed in flame, green and orange and lavender. Several shafts of light broke through the clouds and das
hed themselves against the unseen side of Heba Mish, creating an aurora-like edge of yellow around the peak.
High above, the pearly ribbon broke down into its separate arcs and faded. Snow had fallen in the darkness and lay glittering outside the cave.
Nikolai and Michael walked onto the rock stage. The clouds pouring into the chasm had been depleted. Now there was just a hollow invisible rush of air. Cracks had formed in the ice and occasional deep bass rumbles and explosions rose to their ears as the cracks broadened and the ice calved.
"Here it comes," said Shahpur behind them. Far off, the hiss increased in volume until it was discernible as a combined wailing and roaring. Icy breezes slapped at them and rushed through the cave with a ghastly jug-blowing hoot. The Sidhe and the Breed came out onto the stage, their hair pinned back by the rising wind. The hooting became continuous.
With sudden violence, the wind drove them back and threatened to blow them from the stage. Michael felt himself flung down, then lifted until his feet were inches above the rock. He hung suspended for a seeming eternity as Nikolai and the others clawed for purchase, lying spread-eagled on the stage. Then the balance of pressures shifted and he fell back. The roar was now a painful scream; wind rushed down the gap between the mountains, pouring into the chasm and leaping over to begin its climb up the white, snow-covered flank of Heba Mish.
The flank's delicate balance was upset. With barely heard reports, it began to disintegrate. Mile-wide sheets sloughed off and descended like ragged paper on a cushion of air. The sheets broke up and the wind snatched at their fragments, powdering them, grabbing and lofting great billows of snow.
Amoeboid, the billows obscured the side of the mountain, then the rock outcrops, and finally shot above the peak.
It seemed like hours before the snow reached its zenith. Again the wind stopped. For breathless minutes the billows hung in a curtain above Heba Mish; then they descended.
"Now," Nikolai said.
Michael squinted, trying not to lose any detail. The curtain broke up in residual pockets of unstable air. The pockets sculpted the falling snow, slicing away this extremity and that, forcing the cloud to push outward here and slide inward there. A shape slowly emerged from the turmoil.
"Number one," Nikolai said. The features abruptly clarified. It was a man's face, young-looking, lightly bearded. Michael didn't recognize it. The face spread over Heba Mish, miles wide, and then decayed. The clouds continued their descent until more features formed. Very indistinct at first, then crystal sharp, came the second face - a Spryggla, Michael was certain, because of its resemblance to Lin Piao Tai. The next face Was so familiar he sucked in cold air and almost disrupted his hyloka. Familiar - but who was it? Narrow nosed, strong and youthful, sharply chiseled…
"Two and three," Nikolai said. "Now it will fall, make one more, and all will be finished."
Michael stared at the face, trying to recall where he had seen it before. "I know him," he muttered. "I know who that is!"
But his memory balked. The fourth face formed, that of a stern and impressive Sidhe, eyes haunted. Michael didn't care. He was so close, and the memory seemed so important he wanted to strike himself, pull his hair - anything to force the answer.
And it came.
The third face was not quite identifiable because of its youth - the man had been old when last they met.
It was Arno Waltiri, now falling into random drifts down the ravaged flank of Heba Mish and into the ice chasm miles below.
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The Sidhe were the first to leave, walking back along the same path but climbing a few yards up to another ledge to avoid the stepping stone. They were not returning to Inyas Trai; they had other destinations which could be reached only by hiking out of the mountains. Shahpur remained on the stone stage, his covered face unreadable, his mind as horribly repellent as before. Only the Breed, Bek, elected to return with Nikolai and Michael to Inyas Trai. "I've never been there before," he said. "And I've run from Sidhe coursers long enough. The city sounds like a haven, for the time being at least."
Nikolai didn't encourage him, but the Breed had made up his mind. Where humans were welcome, surely Breeds would not be despised.
The ledge was even more treacherous after the passage of the winds. Snow had fallen from the sides of their mountain and compacted to slippery ice under their feet Michael was very tired and glad to see the stepping stone.
He felt as if he had lived a dozen lifetimes, and left something unresolved in each one. He was a many-formed ghost caught between at least two realities, neither of them quite solid an-i convincing. Who had Arno Waltiri been, that his face should be carved in clouds of snow in the Realm of the Sidhe?
Perhaps Clarkham was not the goal of his travels after all, not the one to return him to Earth or help the humans in the Realm. But Waltiri was dead… or rather, Michael had been informed of his death. In the "real" existence of Earth, such a message - such information - was certain. Nobody in Michael's experience had ever been so cruel as to lie about the death of a friend, and he had no reason to suspect Golda.
Perhaps she hadn't known, either. Or perhaps he had deceived them all.
Perhaps he hadn't even been human.
Michael's thoughts were deeply mired as he stepped up oa the stone. Nikolai and Bek followed, Bek with hands trembling, as afraid of the Sidhe as Michael would have been, once.
And should have been, now. In the instant between stones, he heard voices engaged in conversation. Whether the hearing had been arranged as warning, he was never to know. The voices discussed his status in Inyas Trai, his position with the Ban of Hours, the status of humans in the Realm - and mention was made of the Council of Eleu and of the Maln.
He emerged in warm sunlight. Neither Nikolai nor Bek stood beside him on the stone. Ulath and four male Sidhe in pearly gray waited on the gravel surrounding the stone. Ulath's expression was tense, grim. He could feel her aura pulsing angrily, sense her restrained power.
The male Sidhe were coursers from the Irall. He gathered that much before they became aware of his abilities and sealed their memories.
"I remind you," Ulath said, "that he is protected by the Ban of Hours."
The shortest courser stepped forward and held his hand out to help Michael down from the stone. Michael hesitated, then took the hand, realizing he would exhibit his fear otherwise. He didn't know what he would do next. He doubted he could successfully cast a shadow with so little preparation, and so many Sidhe on alert.
"I am Gwinat," said the Sidhe who had offered his hand, "I am your intercept. You are in possession of a horse of the Irall."
"It was given to me," Michael said.
"That is irrelevant. No one, especially a human, can be in possession of a horse from the stables of Adonna's temple."
"It was the horse of Alyons," Ulath said, glancing between Gwinat and Michael. "You are well aware of that."
"And for stealing that horse, Alyons was sent to the Blasted Plain. That was his punishment. We could not reclaim the horse - he put his imprint on it and it would have been of no use to the temple. Sidhe law does not recognize the return of stolen property, anyway - certainly not horses."
Ulath touched Michael on the cheek. "Alyons' shadow took revenge on you," she said. "After Alyons' death, the horse had to be returned to the Irall, or left to die."
"He gave it to me," Michael said hollowly. Then, suddenly crafty, "And I've come to return it."
Gwinat smiled in appreciation, then shook his head. "You were his enemy, and you killed him, no?"
"I didn't want to be his enemy. I didn't kill him."
"Come." The coursers drew up around him, cutting off any hope of escape. Ulath withdrew her hand and backed away. He probed her fleetingly and found regret but no deep sorrow. "The Irall does not approve of the Ban's policy toward humans," Gwinat informed her.
"The Irall has no power over the Ban. She was appointed b
y Adonna. What does Adonna say?"
Gwinat smiled snakishly and bowed his head. "We will remove this one. That is the law."
What? Who is it?
Go with them
He looked at Ulath but she hadn't sent any messages, and it hadn't felt like the Ban - or Death's Radio. Who, then?
He walked between the coursers, onto the stepping stone which led to the streets below, then through the streets to where their horses - and Alyons' - waited. A small number of Sidhe females watched as the coursers allowed Michael to mount the sky-blue horse, mounted their own, and rode with him through the northern gates of Inyas Trai. Gwinat turned to look back through the gates, still smiling.
"I don't see what even a human would find of value in there," he said softly. "The Spryggla took their revenge on us when they built it, just as Alyons took his revenge on you, eh?"
Michael looked straight ahead, down a wide stone road that passed straight as a shadow through an avenue of black stone pillars, and beyond, to the gates of the temple of Adonna.
They were taking him to the Irall.
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The Irall loomed, its black central tower smooth and round and featureless, tapering to an anonymous needle point. Around its base were irregular clusters of smaller towers, all inclined toward the center. The towers rose from a smooth dome of silky gray rock.
Gwinat and the coursers led Michael down the dark stone road, between pillars as shiny as polished metal yet as black as night, with gleams buried in their depths like eyes, enjoying his discomfort, his fear.
Nothing the Crane Women had taught him could possibly have prepared him for this.
The entrance was surprisingly small, just wide enough for three horses abreast, and perhaps two heads taller than the coursers riding on either side of Michael. The walls of the tunnel were cupped like the walls of a glacial cave, and the floor was littered with what looked like dried flowers. The air smelled sweet and dusty, not unpleasant, yet not quite pleasant. Suggestive, haunting, like the smell of old roses cupped in hands hidden far beneath the sun petals falling one by one scented, black in always-dark.