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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 59

Greg Bear

  He tried to find the direction of the massed human auras again, and when he did. he sensed a great body of water and mountains between. The humans were on the other side of Nebchat Len, in the mountains where the Sidhe habitually trained their initiates. Michael received some of the captives' emotions - and made his first good guess as to their number.

  There were far more than Euterpe had ever contained; as many as five thousand of them. Some were fearful, others calm and expectant. He did not have time to find the individual auras of people familiar to him - Nikolai or Helena. If he did not take Tarax at his word, perhaps even Kristine waited there.

  Michael urged his mount forward into the gate of the Irall, barely wide enough to allow three horses entry abreast. He remembered the cupped dark walls beyond, like a glacial cave suddenly converted to stone. The floor was littered this time not with dried flowers, but with the leavings of panic and flight - shreds of clothing, muddy bare footprints, broken and powerless wicks; not unlike the stairs-of the Tippert Hotel.

  The tunnel broadened but remained dark, without its prior greenish luminosity. The walkways to each side were empty; there were no longer enslaved Breeds in the Trail to serve Adonna, or Tarax and the Maln.

  The walls spread into an immense chamber, its limits lost in darkness. Where before there had been smoke rising to its heights, now there was simply cold, stale air. The beehive chamber beyond was flooded to the horse's hocks with rusty water, hiding the sunken amphitheater at its center. He rode the horse around the perimeter and into a tunnel carpeted with swaths of electric blue mist. That, at least, was the same; they were nearing the Testament.

  Thus far, they had only passed through chambers within the wall of the temple. They emerged from the tunnel into the central hollow of the dome. The air smelled of dust and decay and sour, poisonous blossoms. Yet Michael was not afraid. He had been more nervous meeting the Serpent Mage.

  Long minutes passed while they crossed the interior. All around, the blue mist mocked them, rising in animated swirls and snake-like curls, beckoning and striking, reminding Michael of the blueness that had emerged from a single flower to destroy Lin Piao Tai. (Was all magical power simple and interrelated, like combinations of letters in a remarkably small alphabet?)

  Finally, before them appeared the stone table flanked by tall stone chairs. No amphitheater crowded with Sidhe appeared out of the mist this time to surround the table, and the chairs were empty.

  "Where do I go?" he asked nobody in particular, except perhaps the horse. He patted its shoulder. It glanced back at him, eyes unfathomable but calm, and flared its nostrils. Then it led him past the table, and Michael knew where he was going. The horse would take him to the pit at the center of the Irall.

  They were going to the spinning brass cylinder above the mist and beneath the Realm proper.

  And so it was.

  Down the rocky shaft, past the thick upper layer of rock and the lower layer of blue translucent ice, now cut through with milky fractures, toward the spot of rainbow-colored light and finally out the bottom of the shaft, the horse's hooves straining for solid ground and finding none, its mane and tail streaming, lips revealing tiger teeth biting the empty air ahead -

  Under the rugged ice belly of the Realm, above the chaos of the mist -

  Toward the spinning brass cylinder, perhaps a mile wide and two long -

  And into the hole at the center. The last time, he had been struck unconscious by the errant hoof of a horse. Now he saw it all. And still he was not afraid.

  The horse flew him past bent and twisted platforms mounted on girders that vanished into dusty darkness. The cylinder did not seem designed for any practical habitation; it might have suited a community of anchorites, each sitting on a platform separated from the others, contemplating verdigris decay and endless rotation about the hollow axis. Michael probed ranks upon ranks of platforms his dark-adjusted eyes soon saw, half a mile deep to the wall of the cylinder. Each platform was empty, collecting only dust. Why all this?

  He thought of the graveyard near the opposite end of the cylinder, where thousands of Sidhe and Breed and human skeletons were chained to a free-floating network of brass bars. Had Adonna truly demanded so many sacrifices? Or had the corpses been criminals captured and executed by Tarax?

  The horse shuddered, and Michael turned it away from the center as they saw the graveyard ahead, still filled with dust and captive dead. They flew in a spiral around the cluster of bones. He saw the platform from which Tarax had addressed him when Michael had found himself chained among the corpses. The horse stretched and flew around the platform and then moved inward toward the axis again as the graveyard receded into a lattice of brown points.

  Repeating journeys. Ringing changes on the same themes.

  This time, however, Michael knew he had some measure of control. Tarax needed him - or at least behaved as if Michael was necessary.

  The solid, closed end of the cylinder loomed, streaked with black and green stains radiating from the center to the edges. Then a pinprick of light appeared in the center, widening, its edges glowing and sparkling. Beyond, an unknowable distance below - if distance meant anything there - was the mist, chaos and potential, a vortex of pastel rainbow colors run through with painful ambiguities. Michael would not allow himself to turn his head away. He would have to face such -

  If he wished to become a mage. Did he? What sort of mage, without the support of the Serpent? Ignorant and weak? A renegade mage. Something young and powerful and unexpected.

  He shook his head slowly and grinned. His every thought betrayed how foolish he truly was.

  The hole stopped growing, its edges solidifying into fresh-polished brass, as if a giant drill bit had recently pushed through. Two figures floated at the center. Michael recognized Tarax. Beside him was a Sidhe female, tall and slender. The horse shivered and accelerated, neck muscles writhing.

  From a hundred yards, Michael could see Tarax's patient, weary face surrounded by a drift of fine white hair. He wore the same robe he had worn when he had last sent Michael into the mist to meet Adonna: gray stripes floating above black fabric, intertwining to form knot-like designs.

  You don't even have the necessary clothes to be a mage, Michael admonished himself. Tarax observed the faint smile on his lips. The horse turned and slowed barely five yards from the Sidhe father and daughter. They all might as well have drifted in emptiness above the mist; without looking back or toward the distant reflecting edges of the hole, the only sign of the cylinder's presence was a sensation of vast silent motion.

  "You've matured, man-child," Tarax said. "You're no longer a mere tool, an aimed weapon."

  Michael examined the daughter. Her face was sternly beautiful, in the way he had never quite grown used to among the Sidhe; long, sharply cut, with large pale eyes and dark red hair. He could not tell how old she was; her figure betrayed some maturity, but was by no means voluptuous. She wore a white blouse with the sleeves rolled and tied back above her elbows, and knee-cut riding pants. Her boots were long and black and came to mid-calf. Her gaze was steady and calm. Beyond the Sidhe resemblance, Michael could detect neither Tarax's nor any other heritage in her; she could even have passed as a Breed. She was taller than Michael by three or four inches, if height could be judged in the weightlessness above the mist.

  He thought of walking beside her on an Earth boulevard, through a human crowd. She would pass - but barely.

  "I'm puzzled," Michael said. "This is your daughter?"

  Tarax nodded. He had not even bothered to probe Michael, nor had Michael tried with him. Mutual respect. "Her name is Shiafa." That, Michael knew, would be the extent of the introductions. "What puzzles you, Man-child?"

  "The last time we met, you wanted me dead. You were very disappointed when Adonna spared me."

  "I was even more disappointed to learn you had survived your encounter with the Isomage."

  "Yes. Well, you saved my life, and now you bring me here on one o
f Adonna's horses - which I presume I will not be arrested for stealing - and treat me with civility and even respect, though you keep calling me Man-child."

  "My apologies. All humans are children to me. Shiafa is a child, and she is three times older than you, by Earth time."

  Michael shrugged. "All right. I don't understand why your attitude toward me has changed."

  "Sidhe take advantage of fortune and misfortune alike. My misfortune - that you have survived and matured - is also my daughter's fortune, for the Crane Women are gone-"


  There was a hint of the old Tarax in the Sidhe's long, patient silence and slow blink. "They are gone," he repeated, "and my daughter needs to be trained. Only you can pass along the discipline of the Crane Women."

  "What about Biridashwa - Biri? He was trained by the Crane Women."

  "He is a Sidhe. You are a Breed. It is necessary that Breeds train."

  "Why?" Michael asked.

  Shiafa had hardly moved during this exchange. Now she pushed away from Tarax and, without a word, mounted behind Michael.

  "There is subtlety in Breed discipline," Tarax said. "That subtlety is necessary for an initiate to the Maln." Michael sensed this was not the complete truth.

  "Is there still a priesthood? I've heard Adonna is dead and the Councils are dissolved."

  "Adonna is dead," Tarax said. "The creation is sundered and will soon die. But there is still need for a priesthood. Train my daughter, and you will learn where the Isomage keeps your woman."

  "What will I teach her?" Michael asked, looking back over his shoulder at Shiafa.

  But Tarax was already fading. The Sidhe's black robes smeared like paint in water. His face and hands and feet lengthened into blurred lines. A billow of mist flashed and danced around him, and he was gone.

  "I will be first priestess to the new mage," Shiafa said, her voice husky and musical and enchanting. "My father." She gripped Michael's hips with her long-fingered hands. "You will train me on Earth-"

  "I'll train you where 1 damn well please," Michael said, reacting with anger to his arousal at her touch. "Whatever I'm going to teach you, I'll start in the Realm. We have work to do."

  The new mage. Michael brought the horse around and urged it back along the cylinder's length.

  "Our first job is to undo all your father and the Sidhe have done with humans in the Realm," he said. "If you refuse to help, then I'll cut you loose here and you can return to Tarax."

  "I will help," Shiafa said without inflection. Michael glanced back at her with some surprise. Her eyes were closed to slits. "You are the master of discipline. But we will not have much time. My father will dissolve the Realm any day now."

  "Heir to Adonna, eh?" Michael asked, as the dusty wind beat at them from around the floating graveyard. Shiafa said nothing.

  The ice beneath the Realm was cracked and veined and calving into huge, drifting spikes and bergs. With some difficulty, Michael found the shaft leading back to the Irall, and they rose to the surface of the Realm.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

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  The night of the failing Realm was impenetrably dark. The ribbon of moon that had once stretched across the sky, and all the twirling stars congealing into a fixed night canopy, had gone. There was nothing but cold wind and the soughing of the grass around their campfire.

  Michael had started the fire by extending his hyloka to one finger and igniting a small pyre of dried wood and leaves. Shiafa watched him with some interest and then experimented on her own pile of leaves. She, too, was able to light a small blaze, which she then heaped on the bigger fire. She turned her large pale blue-green eyes on Michael and blinked.

  "I'm not sure there's anything I can teach you," Michael said. "My skills are crude."

  She said nothing, but went to the horse and removed a comb from her pack, then began currying the animal's short, tight-packed fur swiftly from neck to withers.

  "There are people here - humans," Michael said. "I know some of them. I'd like to get them out of the Realm before it collapses."

  Shiafa nodded.

  "Do you have any suggestions?"

  "The Ban of Hours defies my father," she said. "You might consult with her."

  "Is she still in Inyas Trai?"

  "No. The city is empty."

  Truth so far, he thought.

  "She's protecting the humans?"

  Pulling back from a long stroke that made the animal shiver with pleasure, Shiafa shook her .head. "I do not know."

  "You speak English well," Michael said. Neither Tarax nor his daughter had resorted to in-speaking. "Where did you learn it?"

  "From my Mafoc Mar," she said. "My Bag Mother. She attended the Mab on Earth before the final flight to the Realm. The Mab had dealings with English and Scots. And my father has been to Earth since."

  "Your father still hates humans."

  "Yes," she answered matter-of-factly.

  Michael sighed and stared into the crackling flames. "If he becomes mage, the new world he makes won't be suited to my people, will it?"

  She did not answer. That much was self-evident.

  "This is crazy," Michael said. "You're probably a better magician, just by instinct, than I am."

  "No," she said. "That is not so. You defeated the Isomage. My father was unable to do that."

  "I had some guidance," Michael said. And an element of surprise. "What does your father plan to do with the humans here?"

  "I do not know."

  "Is he at war with the Ban of Hours?"

  "I do not know."

  Michael wrapped his hands together and cracked his knuckles, something he hadn't done in years. Shiafa's voice was having an effect on him he did not relish. He increased the level of his discipline and fought back the attraction.

  "You don't sleep, do you?" he asked.


  "Do you eat?"

  "I eat what food the teacher thinks necessary."

  Now was the time for the big question. "If your father is unhappy with the way I train you, he won't tell me how to find the woman I'm looking for, will he?"

  "I do not know," Shiafa said.

  "Are you keeping track of me for him? Spying?"

  "I will not communicate with my father until the training is finished."


  Shiafa betrayed her first sign of irritation. "Humans may find Sidhe untrustworthy," she said. "But I have never lied in my life. Neither has my father."

  "Some Sidhe haven't been allowed that luxury," Michael said, thinking of Biri and Clarkham's Sidhe woman, Mora. "Do you hate humans?"

  "You are the first I've ever met."

  "Do you sympathize with your father?"

  "I have had little contact with my father."

  "And your mother?"

  "Since my birth, I have never met her." Not knowing one's mother was the reverse of the usual situation for Sidhe, Michael thought.

  "I'm going to close my eyes and rest," he said a moment later. He lay back and banked his hyloka until he was enveloped in warmth. After some hours had passed, he opened his eyes and saw Shiafa sitting on her slender haunches by the fire, face peaceful, staring into the darkness.

  Wary thoughts tickled him. Magic is passed through the female.

  Dawn came as a sudden steely grayness and a teeth-grating vibration that set the grass shivering. The vibration passed quickly, but it left Michael disoriented and uncertain of where he was and what he was doing. Shiafa was also discomfited.

  "Morning has never been that bad," she said. "We must hurry."

  Michael had composed another string of questions, but thinking about what he had learned last night - not much of any use - he kept his silence. They mounted the horse. He spread his probe out across the land and felt for the human sign, but his disorientation persisted.

  "Everything's changed location," he said. "Nothing is where it was yesterday."

  "Dead gods have bad memori
es," Shiafa said behind him.

  "I thought your father was taking Adonna's place."

  "He is not stronger than Adonna was," she replied. "And he would have to be much stronger and more clever to hold the Realm together."

  Michael concentrated all his effort and fanned his probe in a broad circle, as he had done on Earth. The result was remarkable. For the first time, he felt the edges of the Realm - not the chasms paring it like a badly cut pie, but the borders it shared with the between-worlds and the Earth. They were not linear borders, nor even areas of boundary - they were spaces of demarcation, hard to visualize and even harder to think about. / can learn from witnessing a world falling apart, he thought. Learn what, though? How to be a mage?

  Within the borders, still at about the same distance but in a new direction, he found once again the massed human auras. Overall, they seemed little changed from the day before. He bent down to the horse and began to whisper in its ear, then jerked back with a start.

  "Is this your horse - the one you'll have to - ?"

  Shiafa shook her head. "Tarax will bring that one to me. A special horse."

  "Then I can impress myself on this horse?"

  "You can try," she said. "Not all of Adonna's mounts are so cooperative."

  He frowned and reapplied his lips to the naked, warm interior of the horse's ear. "You are my soul, I am your body." The horse shook its ears and twisted its head to stare at him. Again there was that icy, resentful, half-lidded eye, filled with light like a frozen man's dream of fire. "Okay," Michael said. "Unimpressed."

  Shiafa smiled, and Michael quickly looked away from her. Very dangerous, a smile on that long, lovely face.

  "So we only borrow this horse," Michael said. He stroked its neck and then felt under its ear, along the deep line of its jaw. Through his fingers he passed a kind of out-seeing or evisa for the beast. The horse trembled, then trotted across the grass in the direction he had requested.

  Michael had decided against any more precipitous abana, at least for the time being. The last such journey had not been pleasant; he thought it best to rely on the horse's higher talents only in an emergency. He was even wary of prodding the horse into the spectacular flying gallop its kind could execute so easily. So they moved at a measured pace across the inconstant landscape, passing within hours through areas where both spring and winter ruled.