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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 13

Greg Bear


  "Now watch," Spart said as they gathered and sat in the middle of the circle. "See what even a young Sidhe can do in the Realm."

  Biri reached out with his long, muscle-knotted arms and touched a spot directly before him with his index finger. The muscles in his face tightened and his lips moved silently. The rock began to glow, and presently the cold was dispelled by a steady pulse of heat. Michael was mesmerized by the glowing spot. "Will I ever be able to do that?" he asked Spart in a whisper.

  She shook her head, not in definite denial, but as if the question irritated her. Michael leaned back, frowning. Well, will I? he asked himself. He held his hands out to the warmth. He was thirsty - he had swallowed some dust and it tasted like the bitter part of a bad apple - and hungry, but he knew better than to ask about food.

  Presently his legs cramped and he unfolded them and lay back. The others remained sitting, staring at the glow. He leaned on his elbow, stretching his legs behind Spart. His eyelids began to droop.

  He awoke, his whole body jerking and trembling. His eyes opened and he became aware that he was standing, the toes of his shoes on the edge of the circle Bin had drawn. He faced away from the heat into darkness. Something urged him to cross over the line, but he couldn't.

  In the fixed starglow, Michael made out a purple shape beyond the circle. Each time he blinked, it changed form and appeared closer. The battle between the urges to step over the line and to stay inside the circle jerked him harder now; his legs and arms twitched like marionette limbs in the hands of an inept puppeteer.

  The purplish shape was close enough now to stand face to face with him, but it had no face. The shape consisted of smooth rings of varying sizes stacked atop each other, with several more rings gliding up and down the thing's exterior. Michael blinked and the shape became an assemblage of irregular rounded blobs.

  He blinked again, and the shape was his mother, smiling at him and holding out her arms.

  Again, and it was Helena, waving for him to follow her as she stepped back.

  "It's quite obvious, isn't it?" Biri said, standing beside him. "You haven't met one of these before?"

  Michael shook his head. "What is it?"

  "An abortion. A creation too inconsistent to match up with the Realm."

  "One of Adonna's mistakes?"

  "Gods don't make mistakes," Biri said. "What are you going to do?"

  Michael laughed hysterically. "What should I do?"

  "Do you wish to see it as it really is?"

  "Should I? I mean no, no."

  "I've seen them many times," Biri said. "They are mostly harmless to a Sidhe, even to capable Breeds. Only humans are susceptible. It was the power of the Isomage that liberated them from their deep tombs. The Blasted Plain has much worse to offer."

  "Can it hurt me?"

  "It can do worse than kill you. Whenever a human child is bom, one of these is liberated. The child has no reservoir of waiting souls from which to draw, so its search allows certain patterns within one of these to enter the Pact Lands. The child is branded. The same could happen to you if you slept here and did not have a circle."

  "You mean, I'd be possessed?"

  "These are not intelligences. They are abortions. You would be more eaten than possessed. Your soul is a rare thing here, heavily armored within your body. What happens to it when they crack that armor is not explainable in your languages."

  Michael tried to retreat from the edge of the circle, but couldn't. "I'm stuck."

  "It cannot hurt you in here. You can play with it, in a sense; it can no more leave you than you can back away. So you can learn from it."

  "I don't want to learn. I want it to go away and leave me alone."

  "A Sidhe uses the abortions to prove his interior-"

  "I don't care!" Michael shouted. "I'm not a Sidhe! Make it go away."

  "I can't," Biri said. "Only you can release it." The novice walked away and squatted near the glowing rock.

  "Spart," Michael said, "help me!"

  There was no reply, and he couldn't turn his head to see the Crane Women. The shape now resembled Eleuth. She looked very sad, as if she had lost something vital and he was responsible. She looked down. She became a cylindrical something, lines of light crawling up its surface like worms, leaving trails of fire behind.

  He tried to find a clue within himself. They wouldn't leave him in this fix (he hoped) if they didn't believe he had some way of getting out of it. He had to think it through___

  No, in an emergency, thought would be too slow. What if humans had something to make up for their lack of magic, something instinctive? He searched, waited, but the necessary remedy wouldn't come forth.

  The cylinder split like a pared cucumber, revealing an interior compounded of offal and tiny, unidentifiable skeletons. The bones of the skeletons linked and spun, churning the fleshy parts into liquid, which streamed through the lengthening slits and spattered on the dark ground. The segments turned into slithering smooth snakes without discernible head or tail. They rolled into spirals and the spirals lifted to vertical positions, then met at their edges.

  They flowed into the shape of Arno Waltiri. He sat upright in a coffin, sallow-fleshed, eyes open but dead and sunken. His mouth fell open abruptly and music came out, sharp and painful. Michael's skin seemed to blister as the music surrounded him. The corpse fell forward, draped over the lower half of the coffin lid, and revealed another body behind it: his own.

  "Wait," Michael protested. It was stealing all these images from inside him. If he could stop the flow…

  "Wait," the ragged Michael in the coffin mimicked, shaking its head from side to side.

  "Stop," Michael said. He shut his eyes and concentrated on doors closing, dams cutting off water at their sluice gates, capping toothpaste tubes, corking bottles. He tightened his mind down until his entire brain seemed to contract. You can't steal anything more. I've put a lock on it. Loose minds must not entwine, must not combine -

  Michael opened his eyes and saw nothing but darkness beyond the circle. He relaxed; he was in control again. He backed away and lay down again by the glowing rock, glancing at Bin, who lay on his back, head turned in Michael's direction.

  The Sidhe nodded and closed his eyes.

  They spent two days and three nights in the desolation, Spart engaging Michael in endless and repetitive drill with sticks, running him over the sharp boulders until his feet were in agony and his shins and hands were scraped raw. The dust in his wounds stung like acid and left tiny black lines that were slow to fade.

  When he wasn't training, Michael watched Nare and Coom preparing Biri. The young Sidhe endured everything stoically and performed his exercises flawlessly. The most spectacular thing he did was to reduce a boulder nine or ten yards across to rubble by running around it and chanting. When the dust had cleared, Biri stood atop the heap, brushing his clothes down. Nare and Coom walked around him, features blank.

  Michael knew they were much more pleased with Biri than they were with him, and it was obvious why.

  Despite Bin's apparent ease with Michael, he was seldom able to engage the Sidhe in any meaningful conversation beyond amenities and occasional advice, which galled Michael even more than silence.

  "Why do you even bother with me?" Michael asked Spart.

  "You could train the Sidhe to do whatever you want." Spart agreed and shook her head in despair.

  "We do indeed waste our time," she admitted. "It's fortunate we are immortal and can afford to be foolish."

  Only on the last night on the Plain did Bin open up a bit, as they were preparing to cross the border into the Pact Lands. "When I am done here, I have a good thought, and a bad," he told Michael.

  "What are those?" Michael asked, his tone hardly concealing his resentment. If Bin had not answered, he would not have much cared, but the Sidhe pointed across the Plain and said softly, "It is good to go back to the Sidhe territories, but it is less good to fulfill my purpose there."

  "What
will you do with the Breeds you've had captured?" Michael blurted. "When you're a priest, I mean."

  For the first time, Michael saw Biri become visibly angry. He advanced on Michael and stood over him. "The Faer do not worship Adonna that way," he said, his voice cold and crisp.

  "Some of the Sidhe do," Michael said. Spart looked between them curiously, as if anticipating some kind of fight, and perhaps welcoming it.

  "Not the Faer," Biri reiterated, backing away. He glanced at Michael from under his brows and went back to his preparations. Michael took a deep breath.

  "Hold it in," Spart said, continuing to stare at him curiously. Michael held his breath, inwardly fuming at the indignity. "Not your breath, yo"r mind. Hold it in again."

  "I don't understand," Michael said.

  "Just now. Biri probed you to see what your intentions were. It was a very young thing for him to do, and he didn't succeed."

  "He tried to read my mind?"

  Spart shrugged and took Michael's hand. "You are indeed a man-child," she said. No further explanation was offered.

  Night had fallen when Nare told them to follow behind her. Michael walked ahead of Spart, who was at the end of the line, and he stumbled less often than he expected. "I'm getting more agile," he said to no one in particular, enjoying this small accomplishment. And he had to try extra hard for the next few minutes to keep from making himself a liar.

  Coom carried a stick which she had caused to glow at one end. The dim yellow luminosity was all they had to travel by. Michael didn't ask why they couldn't wait until morning. He felt some trepidation about what they might encounter, with no circle to protect them, but it seemed part of the plan, the test.

  They marched down a gully and then followed the long depression. The plain was silent except for the sound of their footsteps. Michael lost himself in the rhythm of putting one foot ahead of the other, keeping up with the circle of light from the glowing stick.

  "Ssst," Nare hissed. Michael looked up and followed the direction of the eyes of those ahead. On the edge of the gully, outlined against the stars, was a giant inverted skull, its blunt jaw poking at the sky.

  The group stopped and Coom raised the stick higher. The object was at least thirty feet high. As Michael peered closer, he saw it wasn't a skull, but a huge shell. The occupant - or occupants - of the shell rose over the rim of the gully, protruding from the "eyes," long blue-black slug-like things. They joined just beyond the two holes, forming an elongated body which split again near a triplet of heads. The heads were further divided into three stalks, each sporting a mouth like a pair of toothed dinner plates hinged with filamented flesh. The heads and stalks waved above the group, plates opening and closing with faint clacking sounds. Where the skull's nose would have been, an arm with a triangular cross-section slithered, its end covered with tentacles, each tentacle tipped with a blob of flesh that glowed in the dark. The creature or creatures waved this arm as a watchman would his lantern.

  Michael stood his ground only because the others did so. His instinct was to either run or have a heart attack. He could hear the breath in his lungs rasping like a file cutting steel. His pumping blood sounded loud enough to shake the rocks loose. Indeed, a few pebbles clattered down into the gully as the thing slithered on, and it turned its heads to peer after them.

  There was a look of awe on Biri's face, intensely watchful, fascinated.

  The monstrosity either didn't see them or ignored them, passing with cruel slowness. More rocks clattered down, the heads swiveled again, and then it dragged its shell away from the gully with the sound of huge fingernails on acres of sandpaper. Michael shuddered uncontrollably and sat down. Bin looked back at him and made as if to wipe his own brow, a gesture which endeared him to Michael enormously. Spart poked Michael in the ribs to get him moving again.

  Only a few minutes later, they crossed over into the grassy prairie of the Pact Lands, not far from the river. The group made it to the mound by early morning, and Michael went to his hut and collapsed.

  He was shaking. Not until his body had shivered itself free of every vestige of emotion and tremor of memory did he fall over on his side and sleep.

  Outside the hut, Bin stood to face the newly risen sun, holding his small wand high in the air. He then sat on his chosen spot and his head slumped forward. He, too, slept.

  Chapter Sixteen

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  Michael sat up and rubbed his eyes; he had felt, rather than heard, Biri's presence outside his hut. "Yes? What is it?"

  "My wood was delivered last night," Biri said. "I've built my quarters."

  Michael pushed through the doorway cover. A new hut, little different from his own, sat on the mound about twenty feet away. He was not fully awake and felt awkward in the Sidhe's presence. "Good."

  "Before you, I'd never spoken to a human being. I'd never even heard of the Pact Lands until my journey began."

  Michael's bowl of porridge waited to one side of his door. He bent over to pick it up and began scooping it into his mouth with two fingers. "Where are you from? I mean, not that it would do me any good to know___I'm pretty ignorant about everything outside the Pact Lands."

  "Shall we trade stories?" Biri asked. "The Geen Krona believe if we train together, we should behave honorably, and not dispute. I am very interested in where you are from, and how you came here."

  Michael agreed, and told Biri about his circuitous route to the Realm. Biri nodded at the key points, and frowned when Michael mentioned the figure in the flounced dress. Michael put aside his empty bowl and said, "Now, you."

  "To the north, across savannahs and beyond Nebchat Len - that's a lake, almost a sea, very deep - there is a forest called Konhem. That's where I was bom." He paused, glancing at Michael from the corners of his deep-set eyes. "Do you know much about the Sidhe?"

  Michael shook his head. "Not really."

  "We are seldom told who our parents are, especially when we've been chosen before birth, sometimes before conception, for the priesthood. By tradition, our fathers are ashamed of showing weakness by loving a female and getting her with child. That is why young Sidhe are so rare." He turned his gaze toward Halftown. "I think there are more Breeds born than Sidhe. At any rate, I've never met another Sidhe younger than myself. And our mothers return to their clan after giving birth, leaving the children to be cared for by the Ban Sidhe. They are the Mafoc Mar, the Bag Mothers, clanless females who serve the members of the Maln, the Black Order." He stopped and sketched a design in the dirt with his wand. When he lifted his wand up, the design rubbed itself out. "Do you understand?"

  "I think so," Michael said. "I don't speak Cascar much at all, but I've heard of the Ban Sidhe. On Earth, they're supposed to come and claim the dead."

  Biri's ears cocked forward slightly, something Michael had never seen a Breed's ears do. "The Clanless Bans not in charge of raising young take Sidhe dead to the Arborals, or to their tombs, whichever is willed."

  "Where is this forest, and the savannah? We met in a forest…"

  "A small forest, just a patch. The savannah - the Plata - stretches around and beyond this patch, to Konhem, the deepest, darkest forest in the Realm. I lived in konhem for a time. Then I was taken into the mountains called Chebal Malen, the Black Mountains. I was given up to Tarax…"

  Biri leaned forward and stared into Michael's eyes. An extraordinary thing happened. Michael's view of the mound and the Crane Women's hut faded and he seemed to stand before the white-haired, black-robed Sidhe, peering up from a low angle. Tarax bent down and took a small, slender hand - his own. or rather Biri's. That faded - Michael could vaguely see the hut again - and was replaced by the vista of an enormous flat-topped mountain with jagged slopes dusted by swirling drifts of snow. Then he stood on a perfectly flat plain, surfaced with cyclopean blocks of stone stretching for miles on all sides, cloud shadows flowing over the stonework. Ribbons of cloud flew straight up from the slopes on the opposite side. "The Stone Field i
s not on the highest mountain in the Chebal Malen, but it is very cold and harsh there. Tarax built a four-room caersidh out of stone and I lived there for many seasons while he tutored me. Finally, I was considered worthy and he took me to the Sklassa, the fortress of the Black Order. Until now, I have never known anything else." He smiled at Michael. "The trip across the forest and savannah was wonderful. I have never seen so much change."

  "What does a priest do?" Michael asked.

  Bin drew back and sighed. "That I cannot tell you."

  "I mean, do you attend Adonna, take care of sacrifices, that sort of thing? I'm just curious what-"

  "I cannot tell!" Bin said, standing swiftly. "I've spoken too freely already. No human must ever know what happens in the Irall." He stalked off to his own hut, leaving Michael to ponder Sidhe moods and Sidhe secrets.

  If anything, he thought, it was the Black Order, the Maln, that sounded like it should be kept secret. Was training novices the only thing the Black Order did? Even among the Sidhe, Tarax had been impressive - if only for overshadowing and cowing Alyons.

  The Crane Women walked up the side of the mound opposite Halftown, pushing their knobby knees with their hands as if going up some long, exhausting grade. They cackled softly among themselves and shook their heads. Nare saw Michael sitting on his boulder and straightened sharply, regarding him with large, piercing eyes.

  Their faces are so strange, he thought. So human, but the way their eyes curve up, the way they blink almost from three-quarters to one side___

  Spart called across the mound, "Boy! You'll come with us today." He sighed, climbed down from the rock, and reached into the hut for his shoes.

  They walked several miles away from Halftown, due east. He wondered why Bin wasn't going with them and Coom seemed to hear him think. "Sidhe trains different," she said. "Share some, not today." She cackled softly again and Michael felt his neckhair rise.

  "He already knows what you'll need to learn today," Spart said. She walked ahead of the rest, holding out her wand and pointing it here and there at the horizon. Soon a mist began to rise, swooping across the river and enveloping them. Spart rejoined the group, and they squatted to rest - all for Michael's sake, he imagined, since the Crane Women never seemed to tire.