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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 58

Greg Bear

  "No," he said. He felt his strength returning - that strength which had been growing, unaided, since he had returned from the Realm, since he had dropped out of the complex picture of machinations between the Sidhe and Waltiri and Clarkham. The strength returned, but not his confidence. The talk with the Serpent Mage had been so interesting - and for it to come to such an unexpected and painful end, because of his own rebellion, was agonizing.

  In a way, he had been waiting for just such a conference for months.

  "I'm a renegade," he said. If he was out of the picture completely, with no hope of returning, then he was free to act as he chose…

  Which was what he seemed to be doing anyway.

  He turned to look at the rectangle of darkness. When he had first passed through, following the old Breed female, he had felt the nature of the region beyond as a kind of tingling against his palms. He could feel that same tingling now. The unspecific gate led to nowhere in particular - it was an open exit with no fixed destination. To someone with no training whatsoever - the soldiers and police in the streets below, for example - it would be simply a blank wall, darkened as if by a polarized filter. For someone with inadequate training, it could be very dangerous. It could put Michael into a between-world as complex and delusive as a nightmare… Or it could take him where he wished to go.

  To the Realm.

  To seek out Tonn's wife, the skull-snail, if she was still alive.

  Toh kelih ondulya, med not ondulya trasn spoon not kod…

  So Eleuth had told him in the Realm, before bringing back a beetle from Earth. "All is waves, with nothing waving across no distance at all."

  "The Sidhe part of a Breed," she had explained, "knows instinctively that any world is just a song of addings and takings away. To do grand magic, you must be completely in tune with the world - adding when the world adds, taking away when the world takes away."

  Did he feel that instinct clearly? When he had last stood on the top of the Tippett Hotel, looking out over the city, he had felt in touch with the inhabitants of the Earth for miles around - and he had felt even more in touch later, lying in bed in the Waltiri house. But the inhabitants were not the world itself. He needed to make that final link.

  It was certain no one else would do it for him. He was working alone now, without support from any faction or quarter. He had to lift himself up by his bootstraps.

  For an instant, he felt a sense of despair and defeat that left him dizzy. How inadequate he was, how ill-trained and ignorant…

  And yet…

  And yet, he was capable. He had the means to do what needed to be done. Clarkham, the Serpent Mage, Adonna, Tarax, even Waltiri aside, Michael felt the strength within him. The product of a long year's discipline.

  For a moment, the hallway ahead of him seemed to vanish, and he saw nothing but waves of darkness shimmering against each other. Addings and takings away - risings and fallings. Peaks and valleys. He felt the hum in his palms, the singing of all reality, and closed his eyes to tune himself to that.

  With Tarax's suggestion, he had broken free of Clarkham's weak trap-world.

  Now -

  He turned to the dark rectangle. He remembered the tune and timbre of the Realm. He made the distinction between Earth and the Realm. Their wave-trains separated, and he could feel the distinct hummings. He reached out with one hand, feeling the buzzing in his palm, and pressed against the darkness.


  Taking away.

  The darkness became potential. For a moment, he felt a hideous between-world beyond his fingers, and he wanted to pull back, but he held himself there and tuned an interval higher. Closer. Another interval.

  His index finger drew a gash in the darkness, and sunlight beamed through onto his feet. He clawed the opening wider and felt it resist him, trying to close again.

  The Realm was distinct and real beyond the darkness, but hardly stable. The tune and timbre were in fact fluctuating even as he tried to break through. He ad-libbed a tremolo to the song. The darkness faded.

  He stepped through.

  And stood on a grassy dell, with thick, green forest beyond. Overhead, in the dusk of a failing day, stars were twirling like fireflies on short leashes, and the moon was cutting a trail of crescents in a pearly band across the sky.

  The Realm.

  For the first few hours, Michael reveled in the clean, cold sensation of air that had blown across scattered patches of snow and through miles of uninterrupted forest. He reached out to the auras of any within his range and found only a few lone Arborals - and a hint of others in the direction of the setting sun. He then settled into a cold evening, warmed by his hyloka.

  Wherever his probe extended, it met an undertone of disruption. In one direction, he actually felt a cutting-off of the Realm - an edge, beyond which lay something distastefully like the Blasted Plain that had surrounded the Pact Lands. As the evening lengthened, he felt more such edges. The Realm was now cut through by swaths of decay. He did not know whether he could cross such a discontinuity or whether the Realm would last long enough for him to find Tonn's wife, but he felt a nervous contentment nonetheless. He was actually doing something to locate Kristine. For the time being, it was all he could do.

  Until, of course, Tarax came forth to present his daughter. When - and if - that happened, Michael would change his plans accordingly. But the thought of waiting for Tarax's move had eaten away at him. This was much better, if no more certain.

  Michael had never suspected himself to be such a rebel. He had trained under the Crane Women with a bare minimum of argument, accepting the situation and the necessity of their discipline. Now he was ignoring Tarax, who was almost certainly more powerful, and he had defied the Serpent Mage, who was beyond doubt wiser.

  But tainted. If the wisdom of the past came with all the patterns and mistakes of the past built in, then surely there was another and better way.

  He ruminated on these thoughts until dawn, which came much sooner than he had expected, even given the Realm's erratic time scales. Everything was shifting.

  Then he set out in the direction of the murmuring crowd of auras, more certain with each mile he ran and walked that there were humans among that group - a great many humans. This gave him another hope, that he could rescue the humans he had left behind in the Realm. That was something he had never felt right about. However weak he was, he should have tried to help them… But he had not been his own individual then. He had been carrying out somebody else's mission.

  And what if that's what you're doing now, and you don't even know it? The nagging doubt was his own; it came from no outside source. He was of so little importance now, so rejected and ignored, that nobody in all the Realm felt it necessary to cloud his mind with messages.

  Not even Adonna, who might be dead… though that was hard to believe. What could kill a god-like Sidhe? Nothing, perhaps, but the end of his greatest creation. If Adonna had fashioned the Realm out of himself, then the Realm's death would be his own.

  Within two of the irregular days and nights, he stood on the inner edge of the forest that had once surrounded the Blasted Plain. Nearby, the river still flowed, and the bitter, corrupted circle of the Blasted Plain itself still stuck out like a festering sore. But where the Pact Lands had been, where the villages of Euterpe and Halftown had stood and the house that had once belonged to Clarkham, there was desolate emptiness. The Blasted Plain had half-heartedly moved in to fill the emptiness.

  There were no humans, no Breeds, and certainly no Sidhe nearby… with one exception. Michael probed cautiously, unwilling to intersect with the minds of the Children, if any still existed.

  But the Children were gone, too They had been expunged by the Sidhe who had carried away the humans and Breeds and resettled them, perhaps in the direction in which Michael sensed a large group of humans.

  He thought of Lamia, the last inhabitant of Clarkham's house. The house and the decaying field of vine stumps behind it, on a bank abov
e the sluggish river, were gone.

  Michael blanked his thoughts of all cross-connections and associations, searching for the trace of one aura: Tonn's wife, transformed into the skull-snail.

  He found nothing. Concentrating, reaching out again, he refined his sweep. Again nothing - and still no sign of the Children or anything else alive - or quasi-living - in the Blasted Plain.

  And then he came across a wavering pinpoint of awareness, almost too weak to be perceived.

  Without hesitation, he stepped from the forest into the Blasted Plain, his feet raising puffs of bitter dust.

  Within an hour, he came upon the hulk of the skull-snail, its hideous shell stuck fast between two leaning pillars of rock the color and texture of clotted blood. In the orange light of the dusty sky, he walked around the hulk, examining the desiccated remains of the beast within the shell. The skin had hardened to tough leather on the trunk and tentacles: the lantern-like protrusions at the ends of the arms were dim and opaque.

  Yet Tonn's wife was not dead. He reached deep into the hulk, touching the weak aura directly.

  Sun. He kills me finally.

  - I've returned, Michael signaled.

  The boy… Seeking now?

  - You said you knew where I could find Kristine. You did not even know who Kristine was then.

  - No, I hadn't met her. How did you know7

  A mage's wife has many skills. I taught Tonn a great deal. Magic is transferred through the female.

  Michael wondered about that but decided to let it pass. He did not think Tonn's wife would live much longer,

  - Where is she?

  / knew then. I knew where she would be . . But you have changed things. The answer is less clear now.

  - How did I change things?

  You did not concentrate on Clarkham. You thought he was defeated forever, when he was only removed from the immediate concerns of the Sidhe. What I saw was that Tarax held her, to force you to train his daughter as the Crane Women would have. But Clarkham may also have taken her now. The picture is not clear.

  The leathery appendage emerging from the "nose" of the skull-shell twitched and slid a few feet in his direction. Michael did not move to avoid it. She had no power to harm him.

  Please. You must call the Arbor ah. I am dying.

  - There are none close now. The Realm is being evacuated.

  Then it is over. I will be released even from memories.

  - If Clarkham has her, where would he keep her?

  Practicing. Mock-ups, dreams, failed attempts to be a mage.

  - He would keep her in another incomplete world, as he kept me?

  There was no answer.

  - Which world? Please - describe the song, the timbre.

  A world built to contain his evil. A slippery, hardsided world, a trap for all, even him. She does not know.

  - How will I find it?

  By teaching Tarax's daughter. Or by… you are strong now, much stronger.

  The hulk shifted between the rocks.

  If the Arborals cannot come, then I will not wait. The last pinpoint of awareness winked out, suddenly and finally. The hulk was empty and useless to him.

  Michael stood for a few moments .by the remains, filled with an emotion between pity and indignation. From what he had felt in his probe, he could tell that Tonn's wife - he didn't even know her name! - had once been nearly as noble a Sidhe as the Ban of Hours. So what had she done to deserve such punishment? What had Lamia and Tristesse done? He could understand the action taken against the Serpent Mage, but why so much undirected and senseless cruelty?

  As he recrossed the border of the Blasted Plain, Michael saw the sky and the sun slew to one side, then spin. He fell to the ground and crept toward a tree. The shadows of the forest recessed wildly, then steadied. He looked up, eyes wide, then got to his knees. All the directions had changed.

  His skin itched, and his hair stood on end. Fundamentals in the construction of the Realm were decaying, that much was clear.

  But which direction would he take now? He couldn't follow the sun - it seemed to have been smeared into a constant glowing haze above the land. He walked into a clearing and shaded his eyes against the warmth and glare of the entire sky. He would have to travel rapidly. There was very little time left.

  Calling upon all his discipline, he took several deep breaths and began to run through the forest and across the open fields, following now the much weaker and confused beacon of that mass of human minds. He did not run far.

  The land ahead had abruptly separated, leaving a chasm several miles wide. Michael slowed to a walk, frustrated and more than a little frightened. He had never seen such a feature in the Realm before; it was new, and it looked very dangerous, certainly uncrossable without aid. The edges of the chasm were crumbling away, the clumps falling off into nothingness with majestic slowness.

  Michael came as close to the edge as he dared, crawling out on a lip of solid rock, fingers seeking any sign of tremors or instability. Far below, he saw the foundation of Adonna's creation roiling and rainbowing in opalescent mist. And nothing else.

  The chasm appeared to extend in both directions forever. It cut him off from the human murmurings. It even separated him from the distant sensation of Inyas Trai and the Irall.

  If he could not cross, then he could do nothing more in the Realm. He retreated from the lip of the precipice and walked back into the forest a safe mile or so, to rethink his plans and see if another way presented itself.

  "Why do I feel so good?" he asked himself, standing beneath an enormous conifer, at the center of a circle of half-melted snow. "Everything's going wrong…" But he already knew. It was because he was back in the Realm. The Realm had a beauty, even now, that he had deeply missed after returning to Earth. Beauty - and horror and sadness, much more concentrated than on Earth. Every sensation felt here was at once more intense and more stimulating.

  The inexplicable horror of Adonna's wife; the surreal nastiness of the Blasted Plain; the ever-changing days and seasons. The lushness of the forest, with its wild orchards. Inyas Trai. The cursed territory of Lin Piao Tai. How would the Sidhe feel, forced to return to Earth after their centuries here?

  How could a mage take the demanding variety of Earth and mix it with the intensity of the Realm?

  He closed his eyes and spread his palms. He could see everything through his skin. The Realm vibrated and sketched itself across his eyelids. He could almost feel its deep structure, catch the secret of Adonna's creation…


  Michael opened his eyes and saw a Sidhe horse approaching him. An image of Tarax - clearly not the Sidhe himself but a shadow - guided the epon through the trees with one hand cupped under its chin. The shadow smiled. "Play-acting at magic?"

  Michael stumbled over his words and finally, face flushed, just nodded.

  "We have an appointment," the shadow said. "You obviously can't make your way across the Realm unaided. Even most Sidhe have difficulty now. Adonna can spare one of its epon for your journey. We will meet beneath the Testament of the lrall."

  The shadow faded. The horse stood, tail flicking, long foreleg pawing the grass and humus, with its eyes fixed patiently on Michael.

  "Hello," Michael said.

  The epon tossed its head and turned sideways To allow him to mount.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

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  The Sidhe horse, eyes blank as ice, silver-pearl skin blinding in the diffuse sky-glow, leaped from the crumbling edge with legs extended fore and aft. Michael clung to the mane, his heart racing, and cried out, "Abana!"

  The chasm, the separated sections of the Realm, the mist of Adonna's creation far below, all skewed and tumbled. The horse screamed and was surrounded by a coma of fire that broke away like shards of glass behind them. The cold was so intense that Michael nearly froze before he could increase his hyloka. The horse's lips curled back from its teeth, and its muscles tensed hard as stone be
tween his legs. Michael's head seemed about to explode.

  The journey was an agony. It hadn't been this way the last time. The Realm no longer accommodated such rapid travel without protest. They skimmed the ragged, bleeding borders of the Realm and the Earth and a thousand between-worlds. The Realm was an open wound, and the Earth beyond cut deep as a knife, defending itself. Michael could stand no more when the journey ended, and the horse threw him and fell on its side, kicking and shrieking.

  He rolled across a flat, abrasive surface and leaped to his feet instinctively, bruised and scraped on his arms and knees but otherwise intact. That's more like it. he thought. He had seldom spent more than a few hours uninjured during his last visit to the Realm. The horse, shivering but apparently unhurt, clambered upright and regarded Michael resentfully.

  They were on a dark stone road flanked by shiny black pillars, each pillar filled with tiny flaming glints like eyes around a campfire, watching, enjoying his predicament. At the end of the road, squatting under the brilliant, hot, milk-white sky like a monstrous gray seed-pod, was the Irall. At the opposite end of the road, behind them now, the color of incandescent marble, was Inyas Trai, the city that the last of the Cledar has designed for the Sidhe ages past.

  He was alone on the road. The horse calmed under his caressing hands and allowed him to remount.

  Michael's enthusiasm for the Realm had declined considerably. The sky was hotter here, abusive in its brilliance. The Irall stood in sharp contrast, its inward-leaning outer towers rising black as coal from a dome of silky gray. Its black central spire rose to a haloed needle point that could hardly be seen against the dazzling whiteness.

  The last time he had entered the Irall, it had been involuntarily, surrounded by Sidhe coursers.

  He was not so sure that this time was much different.

  Michael stopped the horse and surveyed the land around Inyas Trai and the Irall. The city seemed empty - a quick probe found no sign of Sidhe, Breeds or humans. Perhaps most of them had been evacuated through the customized stepping stones Nikolai had mentioned. Another probe into the Irall itself, cautious and tentative, revealed that it was also deserted.