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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 61

Greg Bear

  "I did not know that," she said. "Though perhaps I should have. If the city is forbidden…" If she had been human, Michael would have predicted she was about to cry. But she did not cry.

  He balled up his fists and kicked aside a limb of snow from a perfect crescent. More time wasted. Dig deep. He let his hands relax. No sense even thinking about it. Just dig deep and do it.

  He stared down at his hands. The limits of the possible, of his ability… What were the limits9 In the palms of his hands, he could feel the quality of the Realm as a singing tingle. With the exception of his unsuccessful first attempt to reach into the Realm and his escape from Clarkham's near-Earth nightmare, he had used gates made by others, or adapted pre-existing gates for his purpose. Now… to simply create an opening between one spot in a world and another… he had never done that.

  Not the greatest task ever performed. Simple for a very accomplished Sidhe or Breed. In a way, the horses do it when they aband, and they're just animals. Don't even think about it. Dig deep. Last chance. Do it.

  "Come up here," he told Shiafa. "And bring the horse."

  She obeyed and stood beside Michael between the obelisks. He closed his eyes, listening with his palms, feeling the different parts of the song that was the Realm, now discordant, its melody weak and wandering.

  Just what you forced Shiafa to do. Find the resources within

  But he had never dug so far into his dark, untried potential. He had never thought it necessary; indeed, he had never known there were such depths to be found. "I'm learning a lesson," he told Shiafa.

  "What lesson?"

  "Whether you succeed or fail, you are what you dare."

  And if I dare to be a mage, against Tarax and Clarkham and all the others?

  For an instant, no more, he had absolutely no doubt that he could open a way to the Sklassa, completely avoiding the Stone Field, whatever the barriers and defenses. He would simply invert the song, play it back upon itself, add where normally one would find a taking-away, and then take away during the adding…


  But it worked. He tore aside a piece of empty air and widened it for the horse. Shiafa stared at his face, radiating heat and power, then at his hand, glowing like a white-hot iron, and passed through with the horse. Michael stepped into the rent and closed it up after him.

  As when he had let his hyloka run wild, he felt a sense of giddy exaltation. He wanted to skip and dance and shake his hair in the breeze. But their surroundings immediately sobered him.

  "The Sklassa," Shiafa said, her voice filled with wonder and fear.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

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  There was the Spryggla touch about the fortress of the Maln. Michael and Shiafa stood on top of a broad, thick wall of polished black stone. The curved wall was a petal of a huge, squat black flower blooming from a mountain peak. No snow sullied the Sklassa's perfect surfaces. Although their images were reflected in the stone beneath their feet, the hot-milk sky was not, and in the depths of the wall, stars gleamed. The flower-fortress might have been carved from a block of space itself.

  Between two huge petal-walls hung a spider's bridge of silvery lace. It began barely ten yards from where they stood and ended at a single small wooden door. "This is incredible," Michael said. "It looks simple from here."

  "We are not inside yet," Shiafa reminded him.

  He could feel the presence of humans very close, but he could not tell how many. "Did Adonna build this?" he asked.

  "My father built this," Shiafa said, without pride or any other emotional inflection. "A Spryggla designed it, and Adonna approved the plans, but Tarax supervised the construction."

  "A multitalented Sidhe, your father," Michael said lightly. "I assume the only way in is that bridge."

  Shiafa nodded. "From what I heard, even that way is uncertain."

  Michael was feeling very assured now. He walked toward the near end of the bridge and motioned for Shiafa to follow. "We'll leave the horse here. It's on loan anyway; presumably someone will take care of it if…" He smiled at her. "If. I'll cross first. You follow after I've made it through the door."

  The span, Michael realized as he touched the guy rope on his left, was a taut and very fancy rope bridge. Its strands, woven into intricate patterns of starbursts, leaves and flowers, gleamed with an inner light, combining the qualities of silk and milk opal. He pushed one foot forward and tested the tension. To his surprise, there was no give; the bridge might as well have been made of iron. Cautiously, he rapped on a guy rope with his hand to see if it would shatter. It did not.

  "Nothing ventured, no pain," he said, mixing adages. He put his entire weight on the bridge. Then, slowly at first, he made the crossing. When he stood before the wooden door, he examined it closely, bending down to run a finger along its intricately carved surface. The wood was dark and well-worn, polished by centuries of touch. The carvings, contained in four panels forming a compacted Maltese cross, were of mazes and whorls. At the center of each panel was what appeared to be a schematic flower representing the Sklassa. There was no knob or latch.

  "Open sesame," he muttered. He tried to grip a panel and pull the door outward, but it was fixed. His palms tingled faintly, and he heard a tune playing under the rhythm of his breath. He brought the tune forward to his lips and whistled it softly. The door recessed a few inches and swung inward. Beyond lay a corridor illuminated in a wedge by the milky daylight outside.

  Michael entered the corridor, then turned and called for Shiafa to cross. She did so without mishap. "We need some light," he said. "Do you know how to turn up your hyloka and make your hand glow?"

  She shook her head. "But I know how to see in the dark."

  "Good enough," Michael said.

  "Can you?" she asked.

  "I can certainly try." He tried and found that with some effort, he could indeed see down the hall as if through a night-vision scope. The hall's green, ghostly image shimmered like a heat mirage. "Will wonders never cease?"

  "You do not seem serious," Shiafa observed.

  "I do not feel serious," Michael said. "I have had just about enough of Sidhe wonders and portents. This place is incredible. It's beautiful, it's weird, it's powerful - and I don't really care any more. I want to get my people out of here and return to the Earth. And I'm hungry. I'd love a plain old hamburger right now!' He glanced at her apologetically. "Pardon my savage heritage."

  "Flesh of beasts?" she inquired.

  "You got it."

  She shuddered. "Will humans stop eating meat if the Sidhe live among them?"

  "That's a good question," Michael said. "I don't know the answer."

  "That will cause…" She touched his aura lightly. "Friction."

  He grimaced and chuckled. "I'll worry about it later." The presence of humans was much stronger. Michael tried to determine where they were. "I think we're very close," he said. "I can feel my people everywhere, all around." The hallway ended at a circular shaft about twenty yards across, with a spiral staircase winding around its walls. "Down," Michael said. But he held her shoulder before they descended. "If push comes to shove, are you still committed to your teacher - even against Sidhe?"

  "Do not doubt me," Shiafa said in the dark. "Without discipline, I am nothing, and you will teach me the discipline."

  They came to the bottom of the shaft. Throughout their time in the Sklassa, not once had Michael felt any sign of Sidhe. This lack of sign carried no information to him. The Sklassa was a place of unknown qualities, and the Sidhe within it were bound to be watchful, protected - as Shiafa had told him, without being specific. And they would have good reason for protecting the humans now held prisoner within the fortress and for wanting to keep them away from Earth. There might be hundreds of potential mages here, Michael thought, not without a tinge of worry. His newfound desire to be a mage rankled like a burr. Why a mage? Because of the challenge. Because the alternate candidates are so undesirable. And is tha
t all?

  Because of the power. Wouldn't it be something?

  The hallway ended abruptly. One moment, Michael was looking at what appeared to be a bend in the hall, and the next, it was a blank wall. He touched the wall tentatively - cold stone. Nothing more. He turned. Behind Shiafa, there was another wall.

  "No," he said. "This will not do." He extended his palms and squeezed around her in the cramped space. "This is one trap you didn't know about?"

  She shook her head, her breath coming faster.

  "Control yourself," he said. "The air might give out." And it might not. Everything… vibrated suspiciously. He smiled and felt his power again, like stroking an internal dynamo. It seemed to expand within him, taking its own kind of breath.

  "If I were to design the Sklassa to be impregnable," he said, turning back to the other wall, "with the power of the Sidhe at my disposal, how would I do it? Would I build physical traps? That seems too obvious. No, I might go for something more ornate, more devious. More a credit to the style and ingenuity of the designer." Concentration was the key to this prison. Shadows could take many forms.

  Blue flower, yellow flower. Black flower.

  The flower fortress was not real. "We have to close our eyes and clear our thoughts," Michael said. They did so. After a few moments, Michael opened his eyes and touched Shiafa's arm.

  They stood at the end of the hard silk bridge, on the flower-petal parapet. The horse blinked curiously at them. The black flower-fortress was losing definition, powdering in the air, the powder swirling and assuming a new shape.

  This new shape was less artistic but much more ominous. They now stood on a cliff edge, with the same bridge before them, but the Sklassa had become a broad, many-leveled castle. Its walls were rounded like water-worn rocks, and its towers were blunt, squat and featureless, upper surfaces polished gun-metal gray, vertical surfaces streaked with black and rusty brown.

  The bridge led to the same wooden door, now embedded in a metallic wall below one of the faceless towers. Michael squinted, his palms still tingling. Shiafa said nothing, watching him with a studied patience he found faintly irritating.

  "Why is the door made of wood?" Michael asked.

  "I do not know," Shiafa said.

  He frowned at her briefly. "Do you believe this shape?" he asked, pointing to the castle.

  "I have my doubts," she said.

  "So do I." Concentration. Palms extended. The designs could be arrayed like bars, bells and fruit on a wheel inside a slot machine. Any one of them could be real. Choosing one that was not real could result in their being lured into a dream of imprisonment and even death. They might or might not be able to escape from the trap of each false design.

  And, of course, it was just as possible that the true Sklassa would have traps of its own.

  "Adventure," Michael said under his breath. "This part's like a game of Adventure. I never liked that game."

  Think it out.

  "Here's an exercise for you," Michael said. "I assume you're as ignorant as I am about which design is the real one."

  "Yes," Shiafa said. "I have nothing to conceal now."

  "If you were building a fortress that would have to be assaulted in a dozen or a hundred different ways, what design would you choose for the actual structure? Thinking like a Spryggla - or a Sidhe overseeing a Spryggla."

  Shiafa stared at the gun-metal castle. "In the Realm, the only purpose fortifications would serve would be to defend against a mage. No Sidhe or Breed - much less a human - would think of acting against Adonna."

  "That's-" Michael stopped. "Hm. No mages here but Adonna and possibly Clarkham. Did they fear Clarkham? I don't think so. But they must have feared somebody. Who? Waltiri? The Serpent? Did they think their magic would fade?"

  "It has," Shiafa said. "The Realm is failing."

  Michael was confused. He brushed the confusion aside. In the time remaining to them, they could not afford to speculate endlessly. "No physical barriers would prevent a mage from entering a fortress. These walls and towers are ridiculous. Any other fortress design is equally ridiculous. I don't believe there's a fortress here at all. I think… it's a place pleasant to the Sidhe of the Maln. It's the opposite of the Irall, the opposite of cold and dank and hard."

  He took his hand and spread it against the image of the castle and then smoothly, with substantial mental effort, wiped the image away like so much dust on a sheet of glass. Shiafa stepped closer to him, and he passed on to her what he saw through gentle evisa.

  The shining silk bridge now crossed a rushing stream of clear water and green, flowing reeds. Across the bridge lay a meadow of tall blue-green grass and flowers. At the center of the meadow rose a Boschian tower seemingly carved from red coral. The tower was at least as tall as a good-sized skyscraper, ornately embellished in a style Michael could easily recognize. A Spryggla had designed that tower; it seemed obvious that a Spryggla had sketched all the illusory forms of the Sklassa as well.

  He crossed the bridge, and she followed. The horse again remained behind, but this time there was some grass on the cliff top for it to crop.

  At the sprawling base of the coral tower, covered with vines bearing huge coral-red berries, they found a broad gate carved from transparent crystal and flanked by what looked like ivory posts. Michael pushed gently on the gate, and it opened inward. Between the posts poured a virtual flood of human sign; thousands of humans, and only a few Sidhe.

  But among those Sidhe, there was no mistaking the aura of the Ban of Hours. He began to have a glimmer of understanding; the Ban's opposition to the Maln continued, even after the Maln's dissolution. As Shiafa had said, she must be in the Sklassa to protect the humans the Maln had gathered over the centuries, and perhaps the humans of Euterpe and the Breeds of Halftown. But where were the other Sidhe of the Maln? Surely there were more than a handful…

  Overhead, the sky changed abruptly to anthracitic blackness, overlaid by an oily smear of spectral red, green and blue. It was more than a precipitous nightfall; it was the end of the Realm's sky.

  The meadow and tower were surrounded by penumbra! gloom. All around, the flowers withdrew, and the grass withered. Then, just as the darkness became oppressive, the tower began to gleam from within, a warm and welcoming glow that belied all Michael had heard about the Maln and made him wonder if he had stumbled into yet another illusion.

  Even villains would enjoy paradise, he told himself.

  "I never knew of this," Shiafa said. They stepped through the crystal gate, between the ivory posts, and stood on a white-tiled floor beneath a broad blue dome mimicking the night-skies of Earth. Each star was a glittering jewel, and thousands of stars were set within the lapis firmament.

  Michael looked down from the jeweled sky. A young male Sidhe stood before them, wearing the full black and gray of the Maln, with a red robe beneath. His face was a mask of discipline. For a moment, Michael didn't recognize him.

  "You are not expected, man-child," the Sidhe said, smiling faintly. "We thought your work was done here."

  "Bid!" Michael said, startled. Biridashwa - with whom he had shared the Crane Women's training, who had attempted to infuse him with poisonous Sidhe philosophy, and who had then contemptuously watched Michael be jerked back to the Earth after the destruction of the pleasure dome. The one-time initiate's red hair had been cut to a skullcap, and his eyes seemed hollow and haunted.

  "We have no need for you here," Biri said, advancing on them a step. He held out his right arm, and a wick grew into it, starting as a green branch and ending as a sharp-pointed pike.

  Michael looked over the haggard Sidhe with a touch of sadness. "I bring Tarax's daughter-"

  "Tarax is no longer of the Maln," Biri said. "He is in the isolation of becoming a mage. His daughter is not our concern."

  Michael glanced at the wooden doors set into the circled wall of the chamber. "The Ban of Hours is here. She is protecting some of my people."

  "You are a Breed. You have
no people but Breeds," Biri said. Michael could almost smell his desperation - and his fear. Stronger than both, however, was the acid hatred that etched the depths behind his blue eyes.

  "Nonsense," Michael said almost casually. His assurance was seamless; he was moving over the border into arrogance. Catching himself, he backed away from that danger and smiled politely. "I am here to take my people home."

  "Their sentence is absolute," Biri said. "We will not allow you to return them to the Earth."


  "You are still a man-child if you do not see."

  Michael folded his arms. Arrogant gesture, he warned himself. Don't underestimate this Sidhe. He's fooled you before.

  "I'm sure the Ban of Hours would want to speak with me," Michael said. "Surely you wouldn't deny her that?"

  "She is here by pact. She remains with the humans until we all die."

  "Who ordains this?"

  "I do. I have replaced Tarax as chief, of the Maln."

  "I didn't know the Maln still existed."

  Bin's face paled ever so slightly, giving his skin a mother-of-pearl iridescence that was quite beautiful. "It exists in me," he said. "The Councils are dissolved. Their work is done."

  "Now that Tarax is going to be mage."

  "Now that the succession is assured."

  "They opposed Adonna?"

  "In the end, Tarax opposed Adonna. The Councils agreed with his judgment that Adonna was failing."

  "So whom are you sacrificing yourself for?" he asked.

  "For my people," Bin answered.

  "By letting all these humans die - and Breeds, and yourself - you think you'll make the Earth safer for Sidhe?"

  Biri's jaw was outlined by clenched muscles.

  "It's a useless gesture, then," Michael continued. "The Sidhe are overpowered on Earth. Their magic can't win them dominance. They'll have to parley. Killing these humans won't affect that outcome - because my people have already won."

  Shiafa stood a step behind Michael, stiff and silent. He could not detect her emotions without lifting his concentration from Biri, which he did not dare do. The wall of discipline behind which Biri stood was strong and only grew stronger under Michael's pressure. He did not want to fight Biri - not yet. But you'll ultimately have to defeat Tarax, defy the Serpent, deal with Clarkham…