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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 68

Greg Bear


  "I didn't," Michael said. "I've never really had a choice." That much had become quite clear to him. He rubbed his tongue against the back of his palate, drawing forth saliva to further dilute the taste of the wine.

  "Consider my offer seriously. The alternatives are not pleasant," Clarkham said.

  The saloon darkened, and the walls of the basement returned. The bottle lay spilled on the floor, where it had slipped out of his hands. Michael bent to pick up the cork and reinsert it, but there was no liquid left.

  When he straightened, he saw a spot of color on the opposite wall. The wall itself seemed intercely grainy, detailed, every speck and shadow of it clear. Michael squinted, and the spot of color resolved itself into a sleeved arm and hand. As his eyes swept up the arm, he seemed to paint with his gaze a flat figure on the wall, dressed in white garments that partook, in their transparency, of some of the wall's concrete gray. Still flat but now complete, the figure's face became animated. Michael backed away; he dimly recognized the Sidhe.

  "You must think your house very full," the Sidhe whispered, his voice a mere vibration of the wall.

  "Tonn," Michael breathed.

  "I had hoped to bring you more, but even a mage cannot survive the forces I've faced. This is a very weak shadow to bring you, a weak bequest…" The figure smiled and seemed with that expression to almost lift from the concrete. Michael pressed close to the stair rail.

  "You cannot best the Isomage without far greater knowledge than you currently possess. There is only one place for you to gain this knowledge… the Serpent. This shadow cannot convey it to you. Adonna favored you for some time; you sensed that? You hold much promise, and the others… well, Adonna had reasons for being less fond of them. You must take what the Serpent has; he will not give it to you without his own freight of past evil. But take it you can, if you are careful, without breaking the law of mages. You must act soon… This is the last shadow the Realm can conjure. There is no forest with wood enough to contain a mage."

  The shadow of Tonn faded as if bleached by the cellar's darkness rather than light, until nothing but the grainy wall remained and even the sharpness of detail blurred.

  Michael swallowed. Will I ever become as insubstantial as that?

  Chapter Thirty-Three

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  On the first floor, Michael knelt before the mage of the Cledar. The bird regarded him straight on, nictitating every few seconds. "You brought me into this," Michael said, half-accusing.

  Better to be a part of change than to simply stand aside and react. The bird had abandoned spoken words, communicating with Michael by evisa.

  "How much of Waltiri were you?"

  Enough to love Golda. This war has made strange demands on us all.

  "Did you know Tonn's shadow was here?"


  "Were you cooperating with him all along?"

  Our goals evolved in the same direction, separately.

  "And why are you waiting here?"

  For the end, or for you to fulfil your promise.

  Michael stood and shook his head slowly. "I'm not the boy you lured into Clarkham's house. I've lost so many selves since then, I hardly know who I am."

  That is the curse of a leader.

  "I've never been a leader," Michael said softly. His eyes misted over, and he looked around the living room, covered with birds of all kinds, from large white owls and red-tailed hawks to pigeons and sparrows. There were only a few of the robin-colored, crow-sized birds the Dopsos had once seen covering the house on a misty morning. "You're much younger than the Serpent," Michael said. "Are you as old as Tonn?"

  Older, now.

  "The writing… it contains the terms of your curse?"

  The mage of a race must wear its shackles.

  Michael nodded, lips drawn together ruefully. "How long will your curse last?"

  Until we again have faces. The bird opened its beak and cocked its head to one side. The Serpent will soon be released. Tonn's death and the end of continuity among the Sidhe mages will break his bonds. Those who were born in their present forms, however, will not be released. None of my people will be released.

  "The cockroaches won't rise up to become Urges, and the Spryggla will not drown at sea…" Michael mused, smiling at his vision of the apocalypse avoided.

  Be warned about the Serpent.

  "I'm warned."

  And accept my apologies.

  "I'll consider it," Michael said. "One last question. Is Shiafa a danger to me?"

  Either mortal danger, fatal diversion, or ultimate boon. Her fate is in your hands.

  "I've been led to believe it's the other way around."

  You can change. She cannot. You determine.

  "Tonn's wife…"

  Adonna was a failure.

  Michael could not decide how to say good-bye to the mage of the birds, so he simply turned and walked out the front door. Shiafa sat cross-legged on the lawn, surrounded by grass green-black and jewel-like under the bright nacreous sun. She watched him closely as he locked the door.

  "How long was I in there?" he asked.

  "I am not well-acquainted with time," Shiafa replied.

  "You and I are going to have to talk," Michael said. "But first, we're traveling."


  "To meet with the Serpent Mage."

  For the first time, he saw an expression of deep horror on her face. But she did not protest.

  With no regard for any observers in the neighborhood - none were visible, anyway - Michael drew aside a slice of air, revealing darkness and a spot of green, and beckoned Shiafa to pass through. She did, and he followed, closing the rent behind.

  Night lay like a warm, black ceramic bowl over the grass fields surrounding the loch. The water was still and silent and practically invisible; without a probe of his surroundings, he would have hardly known where the shore was. Deep in the lake, hundreds of feet below the surface and under a rocky overhang, the Serpent slumbered. Michael could not detect his Breed assistant anywhere.

  "Do you feel him?" he asked Shiafa, a patch of dark gray in the obscurity.

  "Yes," she said, her voice unsteady. "He stole our souls…"

  "Tit for tat," Michael said, not entirely stifling the upwelling of crass levity again plaguing him. You do not know the perils… you do not feel the true danger. The voice in his head was his own, a part of himself having assumed the role of Clarkham, the Serpent and the mage of the Cledar all at once. "He's not going to hurt anybody now, least of all you."

  "He makes me harm myself," Shiafa said. "What my people feel… anger and horror weaken us. We cannot draw from the center. We become like hunted animals in our minds."

  Michael walked down to the shore and held out his hands. The pearly excrescence still covered one palm; he had been at some pains to hide it from Shiafa, even from the bird mage. He did not know precisely what it meant now, and what few clues he did have did not comfort him.

  His function, he thought, was similar to that of an organ activated within a body during trauma. That would imply a connection between the worlds and their inhabitants that was completely beyond anything he had learned before, but it was not implausible. Perhaps even Clarkham knew such a "truth," if it could be called that.

  At any rate, all questions of his own needs, his own decisions, might soon be swept completely away. In an emergency, his assignment might be predetermined, and if that was so, then very likely what remained of his individuality - all he had left to hold on to - would fall away like some bothersome hangnail.

  He hoped to find a way to avoid that.


  He held back the anger and impatience. You must find her… soon… But first, he must keep hold of a world to bring her back to.

  know your plans, Michael. The Serpent's words came out of the loch as clearly as if they were side by side. You are Tonn's final revenge for his people.

  Shiafa groaned sof
tly, hearing the words in her own head. Her disgust was almost palpable.

  "I have been told twice that I need what you have," Michael said. "You told me so yourself."

  And it can be yours.

  "1 don't think you ever seriously intended me to have it. You would have fashioned me into a weapon. That shows how little you understand, after all."

  You could have had my heritage.

  "I don't think you would have given me all of it. You didn't tell me your curse is soon done with."

  The Serpent began a long, undulating rise to the surface. You make your way between worlds, and around this one, as if you were a mage. Your candidacy was only in doubt because you spurned what you most need.

  "I'm a flower," Michael said. "I've had the relationship all wrong, all along. We don't make worlds. Worlds make us. Or both. Or neither. There is no priority. I am a rose put forth by a bush grown by a world. So were you, once. But you rotted. Your whole generation… all the Sid'ne and humans of your time…just rotted."

  If you want what I have, you should come swim with me…

  Michael removed his shoes and shirt. He stepped down to the waterline in the tar-like darkness and hesitated. The water smelled of peat and age. Walking in up to his ankles, he considered the depth of the lake and how easy it would be for a body to be lost there, forever - nibbled by the salmon the Serpent fed upon, stripped until its tea-colored bones lay scattered on the silty bottom like so many pieces of broken crockery.

  Come live the life I've lived. Maybe then you'll deserve to raid my memories.

  The Serpent swam several hundred feet below the surface, its watery darkness no more profound than the clouded night over the loch. Michael dived into the water, pulling himself toward the middle with the strokes he had learned in a high school gym class. The water tasted sour. It was quite cold. He drew more heat from his center and kept on swimming until he dog-paddled directly above the Serpent.

  My curse comes to an end soon. Adonna's last power fades, and the words he wrote on my belly will fade, too. Then I'll take my place with the other candidates. No need for a feeble boy to carry on in my place.

  Michael could feel the pressure of the Serpent's ascent beneath him. A harsh metal moon cast a weak gray light through a gap in the clouds and revealed the water around him as so much mercury, rippling slowly around his stroking arms. "What in hell am I doing here?" Michael asked himself, spitting out water. The Serpent was barely a hundred feet below him now, insinuating its coils through the murk. Sixty feet. Thirty. Twenty.

  Michael took a deep breath and sank, letting the water close over his head. His eyes stung, but he forced them open and stared down. Ten feet. Five feet. With the few scattered photons of filtered moonlight, he made out an oblong shape, now stationary beneath him.

  My world, the Serpent said. Have you earned what you wish to take?

  No, Michael responded. But I'll try anyway. And if he succeeded, wouldn't he, too, be breaking the law of mages? Adonna's shadow had implied he would not, but that seemed most convenient.

  He set aside the confusion. That law, doubtless, had been devised during times of prosperity and calmness, when transitions of mages could be leisurely and honorable. Such excuses, at least, came easily to his mind. He was still a thief. And if it all turned out well in the end - would it justify what he was about to try?

  Strong motivations. Even bravery.

  The Serpent's head gave off its own light now. The small, clouded eyes and underslung scythe of a mouth, with two curves of tiny white teeth, were all too apparent. Michael felt as if his heart would stop. The Serpent could swallow him whole in a couple of bites, an act of topsy-turvy, turned-sidewise cannibalism… or simple survival.

  Then it's a contest, the Serpent said. You're worthy of a contest. See if you can take what you need.

  The Serpent broke the surface. Michael did likewise. At the same moment, the moon shed a rich, cold platinum light on the smooth loch. The beam drew a line down the Serpent's wake, and Michael saw its skin glittering with jewels and the fresh strong arms it was using along with its tail and thickened fins to propel itself through the water.

  "You really are part of the original sin, aren't you?" Michael accused, his voice echoing from the hills and rocks of the opposite shore. He realized what he was doing. Despite everything, he had come away from his first meeting with the Serpent intensely impressed. He was shedding those last bits of regard; what he had to try now, he could not in all conscience do to something - someone - he truly respected.

  Michael swam to the shore. The Serpent followed, matching his pace, its blunt eel nose never more than three yards behind.

  Michael stood in the shallows. The Serpent was quiet. It was no more than a few yards from the shore, and the moonlight was fading. He did not try to probe the Serpent's thoughts; what was coiling and tensing within him could be given away by that.

  My time has come around again, Michael P err in. My face returns.

  The Serpent pushed itself onto the pebbly surface, the moon glistening on its skin through sporadic breaks in the slick black clouds. Michael's palms tingled furiously now, making his arms ache. Shiafa -

  He touched her mind lightly. He still had not found sufficient strength within himself to accomplish what he needed to do. Ashamed, he asked for her help - again - and felt a surge of sexual response, magical strength, intertwined. She did not know what to do with her power, but she knew what his "borrowing" meant. He could hardly avoid entanglement now.

  She very nearly had him.

  The sadness that welled up in Michael was as painful as the feeling in his hands. Kristine.

  Sixty million years of mixed sanity and madness, dreaming and plotting. The Serpent, whatever he had done, deserved this coming moment of freedom from the Sidhe curse -

  Michael recognized the subtle wash of the Serpent's persuasion and blocked it. His emotions were being played with on more levels than he could watch carefully. The Serpent's probes were incredibly subtle, undetected until now…

  Which meant it knew the danger Michael presented.

  Michael asked himself, What in God's name are you

  The loch shore exploded, bushes and grass flaring for an instant into daylight brilliance, burning with a horrifying gasp of air that shook the waters and made them shrink back toward the center

  Who did that

  And the Serpent writhed on the shore, arms pulled from their grasp on the rocks, a face emerging from its carp-eyes and underslung, moon-shaped mouth, it is changing, now it has a face again, who is

  The horror of my people carried in this (Shiafa)

  mixing the fires, going out after such fury, the moon gone and the sky like a helmet

  Uncoil. Lunge. Who is

  Michael, not the Serpent, which seems stunned. Michael stands over it, the Serpent's thickness rising to above his waist, the face coming out and a handsome face, not very unlike that of a Sidhe, the first face of ur-human seen on Earth for sixty million years, brother to Sidhe one would think.

  And within its mind Michael works his way rapidly, putting to work utilities he did not know he had, tossing out the Serpent's personality and thieving from those reserves of knowledge he knew he would need. Unable to avoid some aspects of becoming the Serpent, for knowledge is the man (and becoming more entwined with Shiafa with every instant of his use of her powers) and breathless above the Serpent watching

  Who flamed the bushes - diversion but by whom?

  How many minds have I

  The sixteen-year-old boy has shrunk to nothingness, leaving only a trail of memory

  Shiafa is in his place

  Lord, lord of my youth, wherever you have gone, whatever you may be unless you are just another stronger of us who aspire to make worlds I cannot ask your help this is not right but I need your help

  The Serpent fought back suddenly, and Michael's head seemed to explode in fire as had the brush along the shore.

  The flames crisped the lette
rs of the Serpent's curse onto Michael's soul.

  You have not earned any right to do this to me.

  "Then give me what I need!" Michael cried out into the night. Shiafa shouted some of the words with him, a poorly slaved extension.

  You would have us live with them, after what they did to us…

  "And no revenge! An end to the war!"


  But Michael was already learning from the Serpent, taking what he needed. He saw the meaning of the excrescences on his palms and knew what he was. Once there had been many like himself, sixty million years ago; with their passing, the world's unruliness had been practically guaranteed.

  They had not been mages. They had served the mages that had created this world and many others (!) like it. They had been called makers. In the absence of the intricate organization that the Serpent remembered, Michael would have to be both maker and mage, craftsman and creator.

  The Serpent struggled against him, kicking up the rocks. Several large stones struck Michael and Shiafa, drawing blood from his outstretched hand and forehead and doubling her over with a gasp, but he did not flinch.

  Even as the transformation continued, the symbols on the Serpent's belly did not fade. Instead, they glowed with a new malevolence and with new life. Its sounds, as it rolled and flopped on the beach, knocking free some of its jeweled scales, were agonized beyond any pain caused by Michael.

  More and more, the Serpent was returning to the form of Manus - the mage's name, sixty million years ago, before humans had lost their final battle with the Sidhe, and he had been made to carry the eternal burden of defeat.

  Michael consumed its - his - memories as rapidly as he could, but they were fading and contorting horribly under his anchored probe. Manus writhed on the shore, steam rising from the letters on his dark, golden-colored skin. The jeweled scales had all fallen away, littering the beach like a spilled chest of treasure.

  The mage now had two arms and two legs. His tail had diminished to a black nubbin at the base of his spine. With a moan, he turned over on his back. His face was once again completely human - but it was blank.