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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 31

Greg Bear

  The message came through stronger than he had ever felt it before, just as the light from the tunnel's entrance was cut off by a bend in the path. The coursers pushed on, having no need for the light. Michael, trying to listen for the voice again, heard Gwinat dimly: "We're to take you to the Testament."

  As Michael's eyes adjusted, he saw the tunnel had broadened and was filled with a faint greenish glow. Ahead, on walkways to either side, two long lines of figures shuffled in single file, eyes staring forward. They were Breeds, and each carried a green ceramic basin filled with black liquid. Michael tried to examine each face as they passed, looking for Lirg, but there were far too many and he wasn't sure he could remember what Lirg looked like anyway.

  The tunnel opened onto an immense smoky chamber, its ceiling lost in darkness. The walls on either side were pocked with holes thirty to forty feet in diameter, their lower edges stained by a continuous rusty dripping. The horses splashed in an inches-deep layer of silty liquid rippling across the floor. Alyons' horse - or rather. Adonna's - twitched its ears and withers uneasily.

  The next chamber was like the inside of a cartoon beehive, circular horizontal ribs stacked layer upon layer to form a dome. In the middle of the chamber was a depressed amphitheater with yard-high steps leading down to a rusty pool of water. All Michael could smell now was stale water.

  The coursers escorted him around the amphitheater and led him down a side hallway. They passed a line of marching Sidhe, dressed only in gray kilts.

  All of Adonna's attendants were male, apparently; the Irall was a male sanctuary.

  "What is the Testament?" Michael asked.

  Gwinat turned to him. "The trial chamber of Adonna's judges. The meeting place of the Maln." He did not need to probe Michael's aura to speak English.

  "I thought that was in the mountains," Michael said. Gwinat smiled at the absurdity of trying to correct human misperceptions.

  "I mean, that's where you train priests." Michael remained quiet for a few minutes, then said, "It's obvious I'm guilty, under your law. Why should you try me? Isn't the Maln all-powerful? Or is my ignorance some excuse?"

  "Your guilt is an excuse," Gwinat said.

  Michael had to think harder Shan he had ever thought before. There had to be some way out of the situation, some supreme effort or cleverness the Crane Women had instilled that he had temporarily forgotten.

  Ahead, an electric blue glow suffused through the tunnel like a fog. The horses took them through wreaths of bluish mist. The mist curled with sentient gestures, curious, cold.

  The air cleared and Michael saw they were advancing across some tremendous open space, the interior of the dome itself; all the other chambers had been contained in the walls of the Irall. Long minutes passed before he sighted a stone table on the otherwise bare floor, and in tall stone seats surrounding the table, four Sidhe in black robes, facing inward.

  The coursers led Michael in a circle around the table. The four Sidhe in black watched him closely. The floor crawled with dim patches of blue mist, shot through with transitory lines of green and black.

  "Tra gahn," said one of the four, rising and pushing back the stone chair with a grating rumble. He looked into Michael's eyes and made a gesture to Gwinat. Gwinat took Michael's arm and pulled him from the horse, setting him on the ground with a wrenching pain in his shoulder.

  As he turned, he saw that a stone amphitheater now surrounded the table. On the risers stood a crowd of plumed, dazzle-robed Sidhe males. They all stared at Michael and picked at him with a silent chorus of sharp-edged probes, seeking a way through his defenses.

  "Do you recognize me?" asked the Sidhe standing at the table. Michael turned, and nodded. "Who am I?"

  "You are Tarax."

  "And you know your crime?"

  Michael nodded again, knowing it was useless to argue.

  Tarax removed his black robe, revealing a blood-red cloak. He then pulled back the cloak, unveiling not another layer of clothing, nor his body, but a forest of leaves, as if his head were supported not by flesh and blood but by a tree. Birds flew from the leaves high into the darkness, their wings beating steadily. The wingbeats faded.

  Gwinat leaned over him. "Tarax says you are quite guilty," he said, "And that you are the one they want. Even had you been innocent, we would have the authority to take you from the Ban now. Adonna wants you."

  Chapter Thirty-Six

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  They led him away from the table. The risers vanished as quickly as they had appeared, and the beautifully dressed Sidhe with them.

  "We are going below," Gwinat said. Michael detected a hint of pity in the Sidhe's voice.

  The center of the dome of the Irall was occupied by a pit perhaps fifty yards across at its rim. Concentric steps descended to a narrower opening of ten or twelve yards. Gwinat urged his horse down the steps, pushing Michael ahead. The coursers followed. A cold breeze blew up from the center. "Mount," Gwinat said, extending his hand. Michael took hold and was lifted onto Gwinat's horse, sitting before the Sidhe.

  Michael's eyes widened as Gwinat booted the animal's flanks. It tossed its head, reared and kicked off into nothingness. The coursers leaped after.

  He closed his eyes momentarily. His stomach twisted and his eyelids fluttered involuntarily, then opened. He blinked against the wind. They plunged down the hole into darkness. Gwinat kept a tight grip with one arm on Michael's waist. To each side, the coursers' beasts stretched out in silvery, elongated poses of leaping, tails twisting and waving behind, manes unfurled and gleaming like fire, lips drawn back from gnashing teeth. They seemed to pull at the air ahead with their teeth, legs straining for solid ground and finding none.

  The darkness was broken only by hanging swatches of luminous green moss on the smooth-bored stone walls. Michael turned to look at Gwinat. The Sidhe's teeth were bared; he seemed to be grinning, grimacing and preparing to scream all at once.

  Michael shielded his eyes with his hands. The dry wind stung. The stone walls gave way after several minutes to ice as clear and deep as flawless blue glass.

  Far ahead - below - a tiny dot of dim rainbow-colored light appeared, then rushed toward them. Michael prepared for destruction. He felt the horse's muscles relax beneath him. He leaned close to its neck and clasped its mane with what must have been a painful grip, but the animal didn't protest. The walls of the hole vanished; they had fallen for at least a quarter of an hour and now glided over a maelstrom of cloudy, turbid light.

  They were now beneath the bottom of the Realm, beyond all solidity, into darkness and terrifying creation. The horses navigated through an upside-down forest of ice stalactites with bases hundreds of yards thick. Below, small brilliant globes of indefinite size flitted over the maelstrom.

  Michael silently prayed; not that he would have been heard above the rush of wind which filled the void, pasting his hair to his head and threatening to tear him from Gwinat's grip. "Lord," he mouthed, "I thank you for all I have lived, all I have seen. I am sorry I never acknowledged You, and I hope this is not all for nothing - - -If I die now, I know I have done nothing worthwhile, and have brought pain and death-" He thought of Eleuth's spinning, fading shadow in the Between, and then of the Ban of Hours' accepting, forgiving arms. "I know I am nothing in the face of this, and that this is nothing before You…" He was repudiating all his weak attempts at disbelief, and all of his young materialist philosophies. And he was doing it clumsily, with inelegant words and far too many repetitions of the word "nothing." He was half-crazy with fear, and yet he realized he was editing his own prayers, his own supplications… He was worried about style in the face of extinction.

  Gwinat tightened his hold as Michael began to tremble, then shake. With some surprise, the Sidhe realized that the boy was laughing. Tears blew back from the human's face and struck Gwinat's, streaming across his cheeks. For a moment, the Sidhe felt it might be best to simply drop the human into the maelstrom and be done with him. There
was something weird and dangerous in this laughter and weeping, something he could not fathom. But he held on and the boy became calm after a time.

  The horses pitched downward, away from the ice pillars. Michael was through praying. He was filled with a wordless, profound silence. Only one thought crossed his mind as they dropped away from the Realm's underside: This must have been the way the Sidhe crossed between the stars. Taking their own wind with them in the emptiness of space, traveling in hordes of millions, so many they would have seemed like a comet's tail from far away, glittering like pearly motes against the stacked razor's-edge blackness.

  Ahead, drifting over the Maelstrom, was an oval object like an elongated bean. The bean-shape clarified into a cylinder about twice as long as it was wide. Spinning slowly on its long axis; it appeared to have been lathed from a solid piece of brass. The cylinder pointed down toward the maelstrom, irregular blotches of verdigris rolling along with its outer surface.

  They approached the top. The flat expanse loomed like a wall, pierced by an irregular gaping entrance at its center. Michael wasn't able to get an impression of its size until the very last, just as they entered the hole.

  The cylinder was perhaps a mile in diameter.

  For a moment there was confusion. One of the coursers got ahead of Michael and Gwinat. His animal's hoof twitched a few feet from Michael's face, then swung back and caught Michael on the side of the head. He was knocked from Gwinat's arm and fell away, seeing nothing but warm, mellow red, dimming rapidly to deep brown___

  Michael's awareness returned in stages. First he smelled dust, acrid and irritating. He sneezed. Then came the pain. His forehead felt on fire. His eyes were open, but he couldn't see until the darkness irised and revealed another, even more profound black. He was in chains.

  His wrists and ankles were shackled to a brass bar with a ring on each end. Chains extended from the rings to another bar a few yards away. Shackled to that bar was a skeleton, clothes and dried skin floating in tatters on its translucent yellow bones.

  He was weightless. All around was the ineffable presence of something huge, moving. Within a feeble gray illumination Michael could see nothing but chains, bars and more bodies.

  He was floating in a graveyard. He shut his eyes and probed outward to the limit of his range. Only uncertain murmurs came back to him. The impressions were strong enough to convince him that he was at the center of the brass cylinder, and that the cylinder was an outpost of the Maln - an extension of the IraJl.

  Michael probed again, and suddenly withdrew cringing as a voice blasted him. He threw up his shields, but they were not strong enough to mask the power, and the hatred.

  "For your crimes, antros, for all the creatures that have died that you might eat their flesh; for all that have loved you and been betrayed, for all the so very human things you have done. Together we face a mystery, antros."

  It was the voice of Tarax. The Sidhe emerged from the darkness, standing on a brass platform.

  "Who are you?" Tarax asked, white hair floating in a nimbus around his head.

  "I am a poet," Michael said, feeling none of the hesitance or awkwardness he would have once experienced on naming his occupation, his obsession.

  "That means nothing to me. Who are you, that you should be protected, that I am prevented from killing you." Now even Adonna requests you. Frankly, I am puzzled. Who are you?"

  "What does Adonna want?" Michael's throat was dry from inhaling the acrid dust.

  "I do not know. I have served Adonna for a long, long age, and kept his secrets, and admired his creation-"


  "You are his now. I do not need to be discreet with you. In fact, I have only one function to perform, and since time means nothing to Adonna, I do not need to be hasty. I know these things about you: that you are an evil; that your worst crime is not the theft of a horse. It is being human… and helping the one who calls himself Isomage. You would bring a Song of Power to him, would you not?"

  Michael felt the pressure of the book against his hip. Tarax's platform drew closer and the high priest of the Maln reached out with long fingers to touch the chains bonding him to the other bodies. "This is my only task, to release you and send you down the axis to the Mist. For all these," he gestured at the hundreds, thousands of corpses, "I have done the honors, and come back a short time later to find them here, returned by Adonna, who took from them what he needed. Most have been Sidhe. Few humans have earned such a demise."

  Tarax's robe suddenly came to life. Gray stripes rose from the black fabric, writhing and forming knotwork designs. He touched Michael's chained feet and shoved him slowly, steadily away from the floating graveyard. "Michael Perrin," Tarax announced loudly. "Antros."

  An exit opened in the opposite end of the cylinder. Michael looked ahead and saw the rainbow light of the maelstrom. Behind, the graveyard receded into a lattice of brown points, and then was enveloped in obscurity.

  He closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

  When he opened them again, he drifted through the hole and saw the flat cylinder wall rushing around him, rotating endlessly, brass and verdigris illuminated by the flickering light of what Tarax called the Mist.

  There was activity below. Something rose toward him from the Mist. Darkness sparkled. A pseudopod of night, full of potential, extended and enveloped him. Forms flashed all around, passing in a parade of metamorphosis; faces, bodies, less pleasant shapes. Michael moaned and tried to stop seeing, but couldn't

  There is no magic but what is allowed in our heads.

  "No!" He recognized the tone, the intention.

  Universes may co-exist in the same wave-train, operating as the harmonics of a complex of frequencies. Analogous to the groove in a phonograph record, which is easily distinguished into horns and strings by the practised ear - horns one universe, strings another. We may exist in all universes, but 'hear' only one because of our limitations, the valve of our desires, our practical, physical needs. All is vibration, with nothing vibrating across no distance whatsoever. All is music. A universe, a world, is just one long difficult song. The difference between worlds is the difference between songs. All Sidhe know this when they do magic.

  Michael had been struggling, but now he was limp, horrified, waiting. He had not anticipated this. He knew the voice very well - had been searching for it recently, hoping for answers, help.

  The book was withdrawn from him, and with it, memory of the poem Lin Piao Tai had sought, the first half of the Song of Power the Spryggla had thought the Isomage needed. His only secret, his last defense, was now gone.

  "You're Death's Radio," Michael said.

  / am the Realm. My body is the Realm, and my mind is the Realm.

  "Why have you helped me, if you hate me?"

  I do not hate. The Creation is flawed. Holding it together has become very tiresome. And there is not as much time as once seemed possible. . .. not an eternity.

  The voice became less hollow. At the same time, Michael's focus sharpened and he saw the darkness and the clouds of chaos eddy inward, flashing green and yellow and blue, becoming rosy, giving off halos of brilliant red.

  Before him, standing on the cut-stone field high in the mountains first revealed to him by Bin, was an extraordinary figure. He was a Sidhe, certainly, but like no other Sidhe Michael had seen. Despite the lack of wrinkles, the full redness of the hair, the apparent strength of bare arms and legs, the figure looked old and weary. His eyes were black as the void and without whites, and his teeth were stone gray.

  He wore a short kilt and a loose tabard tied with a length of golden rope. The kilt was decorated around the hem with branches and leaves in gold thread. Michael glanced down but could not see his own body; he was simply a pair of eyes, at least for now.

  "So you recognize me?"


  The Sidhe came forward. "I went to some trouble to disguise myself. Still, you've been very perceptive. It wasn't my voice you recognized, was it?"

/>   No.

  "My delivery. Even a god can't disguise his inmost self, I suppose.

  How long have you been… a god?

  "Not long, actually. Twenty, thirty thousand Earth years. But quite long enough. Do you know what I am?"

  A Sidhe.

  "Yes, and a very old Sidhe, too. Not of this younger generation. All the Sidhe alive today - with very few exceptions - have forgotten me. All they know is Adonna. They forget Tonn, who led them back to Earth, who opposed his own daughter and the Council of Eleu. I was the leader of the Council of Delf. Do you know who Tonn was, boy?"

  The Sidhe mage.

  "Good memory. There were four mages, boy, remember them?"

  Tonn, Daedal…

  "Manus and Aum. Others, less powerful, the mages of the lesser kinds. All are animals on your Earth now, not strong enough to re-evolve, or content with their lot. Only humans struggled back, hated us so much… Now so few of your fellows remember why they struggled back. Perhaps only one… the Serpent Mage. I imagine he remembers, oh, yes!"

  Michael didn't respond.

  "You won't remember this exchange, either. Not for a while. Wouldn't do the great majority of the Sidhe any good to know that Adonna was once one of them. A mage is impressive, but a god must be infinitely more impressive. Aloof. I know my people, how to chastise them and keep them in line. But life in my Realm is just not enough. I've labored long and hard to keep the Realm going, to reconcile all its inconsistencies… all the poor judgments of my own creation. And I've sacrificed, too. Whatever personal life I may once have had… the respect of my offspring… and my own wife."

  Michael remembered the skull-snail on the Blasted Plain.

  "Yes, yes," Tonn said, coming even closer, until he seemed right next to Michael. "The time has come for a change. Perhaps the Council of Eleu was right, Perhaps Elme was right. It is time for the Sidhe to return to the Earth. Ah, if only poor Tarax could hear me now! He'd lose the very foundation of his life. He'd melt with shame. You, a pitiful human child, must carry the burden - not a powerful and faithful Sidhe. But then, Tarax is remarkably ignorant. All my people are ignorant, except perhaps the Ban of Hours."