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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 69

Greg Bear

  Michael's probe thrashed around within a vast cavern.

  "There's nothing," Michael said, rising to his knees. He felt a wave of nausea; his exhaustion was little short of insensibility. "Where did he go?"

  Shiafa backed away from the water and the combatants on her hands and knees, crab-wise. Michael had released her from the conflict. "Where did who go? He's there." She pointed with one long finger at the body barely visible near the quivering water.

  "He's empty. There's nothing in his memory."

  The one-time Serpent Mage stared up at the sky, face as blank as a corpse's, chest heaving and hands clenching and relaxing. He made small mewling sounds and writhed feebly on the pebbles. The moon reflected from the mage's eyes, as flat and dull as the eyes of an old dead fish, as empty of thought as a snake's. The letters marked by the Sidhe millions of years past lay like gold-encrusted welts on his stomach.

  Using the knowledge he had stolen, Michael could read them now and could see how they had changed as the Serpent's form had changed.

  For as long as the Sidhe know darkness, what is within, without. That had been the curse marked by the Sidhe mage, sixty million years past. But now a new line had appeared.

  What is without, within.

  Michael crawled closer to the mage, reaching out to touch him. The flesh was warm. He appeared to be in healthy middle age, though the subtle differences in his features precluded accurate judgment.

  Michael felt the presence of an opening gateway and saw the mage's assistant running toward them. Dawn was a blue patch to the east. The Breed woman stood in vague silhouette against that blueness, between her master and the loch's still waters, and knelt on the pebbles. She touched him, her hand just inches from Michael's.

  Then she turned her eyes to Michael, squinting to see him more sharply in the half-darkness of the moon and infant day. "You are not him," she said flatly. "You've come back, but you are not him."

  Michael was too sick and tired to answer. He pulled back from the naked man and lay beside Shiafa, with whom he felt an intense connectedness, not love or lust or even need, but something a priori. They lay pressed against each other on the rocks, waiting for the sun to warm them. The mage's assistant could have done anything to them then; they were as helpless as beached jellyfish. But she simply crouched with her hand resting on the mage's stomach, near the letters that glittered with a light of their own. Slowly, she drew back her fingers into a fist, raised the fist as if to strike something, anything, and then stood. "So long," she said. Michael wondered vaguely if she were leaving.

  "I've been with him, off and on, for a thousand years," she continued. "He waited for this day, when Tonn's death and the confusion would free him."

  "What's wrong with him?" Michael croaked. "I did nothing that would have… left him like this."

  "'What is without, within,'" she quoted. "For sixty million years, he had a man's mind confined in the body of a serpent. Blessed Adonna," she croaked, her words thick with sarcasm. "Blessed, forgiving mage of the Sidhe. One curse was not enough. Now that the first has ended, he's made a second by twisting the words. The mage has a man's body-"

  Manus rolled over and stared blankly at Michael and then at his assistant, eyes as shallow as road scum after a light rain. He opened his mouth and made a noise like air escaping a balloon.

  "- and now, the mind of a serpent," she finished, nudging him lightly with a toe. Manus recoiled. "Adonna has finished with him. What do you have?"

  "I'm sorry," Michael said, feeling a wash of distant horror, as if an inner crowd were screaming through a thick stone wall. "I don't know what you mean."

  "Did he lose it all, then?" the Breed asked. "All his knowledge, all his thoughts?"

  Michael closed his eyes and followed a trail of light through the darkness behind his eyes. Once, he had been a boy and had lived in a boy's body, with a boy's mind, like a very small but well-made cottage.

  Now the boy was gone, and the man who replaced him lived in a palace, crumbling and crooked, but magnificent beyond description and filled with mysteries. It would take him years to explore that palace and learn all its passageways and perils.

  "No," the Breed said, standing over him. "You did the mage a favor. He didn't even know. You've taken from him and preserved. Now what will you do with what you've stolen?" She turned to Shiafa. "So it starts again. The whole sad chronicle starts again." She shook her head vigorously, hair flying out against the gray sky, and marched back to the rent in the air, lifting her leg and hopping through, drawing the ripped edges together after her.

  Manus rotated his head to stare at the gray, stone-like sky above them, his human jaw opening and closing rhythmically, his human legs twitching.

  Michael managed to pull some strength from his hyloka and got to his feet, helping Shiafa to stand beside him.

  "You have his knowledge?" she asked, watching him with eyes feverishly bright.

  Michael nodded. "Some of it." He felt a sob coming and could not stop it; the sound shook him once, violently, and he hiccoughed it back, covering his lower face with one hand. Some seconds later, in control again, he removed his hand from his mouth and said, "I don't even know how I took it."

  His head was full of voices, all unfamiliar. He stumbled over an image of the mage's youth, when the child Manus had wandered through a grove on old Earth, surrounded by huge trees beside which sequoias were puny - trees of no shape Michael had ever seen, with trunks like rubbed ivory and leaves as translucent as glass.

  Tumbling after this came memories of the meeting with the last serious human candidate. Manus had used all his remaining powers to cast a shadow, appearing to the Nazarene on a rocky hill in Judea, almost two thousand years before.

  Michael saw the face of Christ, strong and fine-boned, eyes black but hair brown almost to red, his eyes drawing almost all attention away from the body, which was broad-shouldered and of medium height.

  Michael held his hand over his face, squeezing his temples and nose, and saw Elme and Aske and the garden where their children had played - and the infant Crane Women, grandchildren of Adonna, dancing around the bejeweled Serpent, while Adonna himself played the larger game of godhood among the mountains of Ararat and across the river plains of the Tigris and Euphrates.

  And then Michael saw the position above all worlds, where those who would seriously make worlds must stand. The place called Null.

  The tears returned to Michael's eyes. Now that he had part of the mage within him, he could assess the truth of Manus's long, tortured life…

  And he could feel the emotions that had stayed alive within the mage for sixty million years - the horror and rage at what had happened to his people, the dismay at how what had once been paradise had decayed into factional fighting and self-destruction.

  None had deserved what had been visited upon them.

  Even the giants of those past ages had been as powerless as children against circumstance.

  The depth of Michael's pretension was beyond assessment. But it was far too late to take another course. Adonna had removed a potential rival from the contest; Michael had not broken the law of mages, for Manus had never truly been a candidate; the curse would obviously have prevented that.

  Now there was only Tarax, Clarkham and Michael. And at last Michael had most of the expertise he needed to begin applying his talents with some small hope of success.

  "I know where we should go next," he said. Already, he thought of Shiafa as a part of him, practically inseparable.

  "To battle my father," Shiafa said.

  The vacant Manus tried to rock back and forth. Michael pressed his hand to the mage's forehead. Applying Manus's own knowledge, he brought to an end the life of the world's oldest living creature, the last of the first race of humans. The mage's eyes became flatter, and finally the last faint gleam of awareness went out of them. Michael lowered the corpse's eyelids with two fingers.

  "No," Michael said, "not to fight Tarax."

; Shiafa seemed almost disappointed. "To find Kristine?" she asked hesitantly.


  He shook his head. A far voice said, One step at a time, and he hardly recognized it.

  Michael held out his hand to her, and she grasped it. Something not entirely pleasant passed between them. Manus's memories now told him specifically what would happen if he stayed with Shiafa much longer, but for the moment, he could not stop himself. He still needed her power.

  Chapter Thirty-Four

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  No need to return to Los Angeles. To Michael, all places on Earth were pretty much alike now; all places offered equal opportunities for entry to Null, and that was the next step he must take.

  A mage or maker could not create mature worlds within worlds already established. He wondered that this had not been obvious to him sooner; young worlds contradicted old in fundamental ways and could not thrive when bound by the a priori rules. The pearlescent globes that had extruded from his hands had been suppressed by his location, not stillborn because of his inexperience. He wondered, then, that Clarkham had made as much progress as he had - for he was certain the Isomage had never been to Null.

  Had the possibility been made clear to him, Michael realized through Manus's knowledge, at age two or three he could have functioned as a maker and spun tiny infant worlds, toy worlds as it were. What potentials lay buried in humankind; what potentials might be released now that the altered Earth suggested so much?

  They buried the mage Manus in the hills beyond the lake, under a crisp copper-green sky shot with ribbons of cloud. Shiafa helped him move the body without a sign of her previous fear and disgust.

  When that was done, Michael stood on a hill overlooking the loch. Shiafa stood beside him, glancing at him now and then uncertainly, hopefully.

  "You are no longer Tarax's," Michael said finally.

  "No," she admitted.

  "You cannot serve him now."

  She shook her head.

  "Do you know why he sent you to me?"

  "To be a trap," she replied, eyes narrowing as if in anticipation of a blow to the face.

  "How many curses were exchanged during the War!" Michael mused. "Overt curses, hidden curses, curses doubling back on each other. How clever in their cruelties our ancestors were. But this curse… That Sidhe men and women can be the destruction of each other. Did you know this?"


  "If I become a mage after taking a Sidhe mate," Michael said, "the Sidhe part of me, however small, will assert itself. I will become obsessed with my mate, bury myself in her, adore her until all my powers are drained. We will eat each other alive. And yet to have the power necessary to make the highest sorceries, I need to draw power from a woman. Sidhe women carry the magic. And because I have Sidhe in me, I cannot become a mage of humans alone…

  "I must love, and steal, and then… I must escape. And I will not escape unless my mate is transformed, otherwise I will continue to be held by her. The second part of the initiation. First, you kill your favorite horse… and then, you kill or transform your mate." Michael shuddered. "Females do not know this?"

  "I did not."

  "The Ban of Hours knew. This is what it takes to be a mage among the Sidhe. Since I have Sidhe blood, I could be trapped. Tarax took his chances. Your father."

  Shiafa was shivering. "You do not have all my power," she said.

  "I haven't tried to take it all at once, only to borrow it. The more I borrow, the more I need. But I cannot take any more without mating."

  "Use the Serpent's power. Leave me here."

  "I took no power from the mage. What little he had left, I've already exceeded. His other powers were blunted at the end of the War, when he was cursed."

  "But you have to leave me-"

  "I can't," Michael said. "If I face Tarax in Null, just as I am, I will lose, and all my people will suffer. I can probably defeat Clarkham, who acquired his magic in other ways. But not Tarax."

  Shiafa sat down on the grass. Her shivering had progressed almost to the point of convulsions. Michael touched the top of her head. "What are you feeling?" he asked.

  "Lost," Shiafa said. "Full of hatred."

  "Do you hate me?"

  She shook her head, a motion barely distinguishable from her shivering.

  "Draw from the center," Michael suggested.

  "There's nothing at my center," she countered. "I'm as empty as a gourd. I've never been anything. Not to myself."

  "What would you be?" he asked.

  The question seemed to calm her. "A fine lady of the Sidhe. I don't want powers or importance. I reject the courts and councils. I reject my father's goals. I would take all of that and give it away… to you, if you need it… But it won't be given away. It sticks with me. I can't give, and it is useless within me, and if you take it, it destroys both of us."

  Michael sat beside her. He had lost all sense of urgency. He knew precisely how much time the world had left - three days and some hours before time itself became completely unreliable. Plenty of time to accomplish whatever he would accomplish. "What does a fine lady of the Sidhe do?" he asked.

  "I imagine my mother was a fine lady. She worked hand in hand with her mate and - she was gone. I never knew what happened to her. Ideally, a Sidhe woman should aspire to the simple joys of living within a well-tended world, among Sidhe-"

  "And humans?"

  Shiafa seemed unable to absorb the suggestion. Michael sighed. "Still your father's daughter."

  "Then reject me!" she spat, edging away from where he sat. "Find what you need somewhere else!"

  "If only I could," he said. How close to Tarax's trap have I come? The easy way, the obvious way - borrow what you need, rather than face the uncertainty. He tried to find a solution in all of Manus's memories, but there was none. Just as Manus had not understood souls, only stripped them from the Sidhe, so had he taken away love from Sidhe mages.

  Nobody's solutions worked perfectly for Michael.

  // you would do everything you can to avoid losing and waste all your energies before the battle truly begins - seeking ultimate assurances and security - then you only destroy yourself.

  And where did that wisdom come from? Not from Manus. Not from Adonna. Not even from the Crane Women or the mage of the Cledar.

  It came from young, unpolished, uncertain Michael Perrin.

  "All right. I won't use your powers any more," Michael said.

  "Who will, then?" Shiafa asked, not believing him.

  "I don't know. Perhaps you."

  "To do what? Work for my father's cause?"

  "I don't know." He was still attracted to her. He would have to fight that; right now, compared to Shiafa, Kristine seemed a pale and feeble object of passion.

  What could Kristine offer a mage? She was mortal, human, not even especially beautiful compared to some of the beauties he had seen - the Ban of Hours, for example. What good would she do a young mage, what could she teach him or give to him?

  Nothing. She was a totally impractical love. He didn't even know that what they had was truly love. It might be evanescent. He might rescue her and find her drifting away from him within weeks or months, leaving him alone. If he bonded with Shiafa, they would never be able to leave each other…

  He might - he would find some way to hold back the mutual destruction. You are what you dare…

  But that was not something he would dare. He would not defy the warning image of Adonna's wife, nameless, turned into a monster and condemned to slide across the Blasted Plain.

  No wonder the Sidhe mage had hidden his final revenge.

  No wonder all of history was cruel, revenge stacked upon revenge, punishment upon punishment.

  Break the cycle.

  "I'm returning you to Tarax," Michael said.

  "I don't even know where he is," Shiafa said.

  "I think I do. He's where I should be now. So we'll go to him together."

  Chapter Thirty-F

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  Stolen memories:

  Of a time when the Earth occupied the center of all space-time, and the sky was full not of stars but of jeweled lights, other worlds not far away to which one could travel on epon in a few days' time…

  And when days were determined not by the orbit of a sun but by the duration of a haze of light that suffused all creation.

  Manus, initiate and candidate for the position of mage of humans - one among tens of thousands of candidates - undergoing his discipline in the forests and mountains, among immortal trees and clean, sweet snow-smelling peaks that never rebelled to kill but sometimes managed a little defiance simply to challenge…

  Consorts and wives Manus shared with other candidates… some of the consorts themselves candidates to be the supreme creator, maintainer, master of the craftsmen makers, tenders and designers bearing the honorific of Gardener or Weaver of Lace, keepers of the paradise where a thousand different varieties of beings lived, dominant (in numbers only) being Sidhe, humans, Spyrggla, Cledar - and Urges, from whom most but not all of the makers were chosen, hence the legend of the demiurges, workmen of the gods.

  Memories of a sky as pure and entrancing as sapphire or lapis, filled with the airborne Sidhe Amorphals and the Cledar, master singers and the inventors of nonvocal music; and of oceans so pellucid that swimmers and sailors could see a thousand feet below the surface and witness the deep sports of the Pelagal Sidhe.

  Manus was young in those times. By his maturity, the golden age had tarnished and the sweetness between races soured. By his accession to magehood, his inherited realm was a welter of skirmishes and infighting, threatening to erupt into outright warfare.

  Accustomed to the purity of sweet reason and orderly debate, very few in his time were prepared to face the upwellings of hatred and suspicion. Almost none were immune to the sickness that passed among all the races. Sides were chosen, and those who supported the humans - virtually all races but the Sidhe - quartered creation and gave the Sidhe the least desired section.