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Ring of Intrigue

Dance of the Rings: Book Two

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WYSIWYG ... Or is it?

The cell door closed behind Nikki and the torches, casting the prison back into darkness. But no door could close Nikki off completely from Mikhyel.

Mikhyel wished his younger brother safe, continued sending advice though he could tell Nikki was ignoring him again by the feeling he got of beating his head against a noisy wall. Finally, he gave up the effort that gained him nothing and left him with a pounding, sickening headache. He sank down to his knees, pressing his fingers against his temples, striving to maintain consciousness against the pain, that was his own, and the lure toward insensibility that was Deymorin.

Deymorin's mind was a velvety black that wasn't consciousness, or sleep, and wasn't death. Mikhyel could feel Deymorin breathing. Mikhyel knew Deymorin's heart was beating, because if he let it, his own heart strove to echo Deymorin's.

But the velvet gave Deymorin position and substance within the lightless room, and allowed Mikhyel to slowly work his way over to his brother's prone body.

"Deymorin?" he whispered, and sought his brother's face with his fingertips. He brushed dirt and straw from Deymorin's lax mouth, and, closing his eyes to eliminate the illusion of sight, searched by touch alone, finding a sticky-damp spot among the hair: blood.

He tried to straighten Deymorin's body, to get his head up and to protect the rising lump from further mishap.

"And then there were two."

A whisper in the dark at his back.

"Well, Suds," the whisper continued, "your bodyguard is dwindling fast. Doesn't look too good, does it?" A hand touched his hair, fingertips that caught the strands and pulled them back from his face. "It'll be morning soon. The clock's spinning down. Why don't you just tell your boyfriend here to bow out gracefully?"

"I might," Mikhyel answered. "Unfortunately, he rarely listens to my advice."

"Oh, I doubt that. Have you told him, yet, what you did?"

"He knows."

"Does he now?" An inexplicably savage tone laced the whisper. "And I'm still alive? Doesn't speak well for your champion, does it, . . . Suds."

"He's not my champion. Therein lies the error of your logic."

"Saves that for blondie, does he?" The hatred increased. "Grown too old for him, have you?"

Mikhyel said nothing. He told himself that the inmate was simply probing after information, hoping to goad him into revealing something useful.

"Or is it just that . . . hillboys . . . are expendable?"

But in the process, the man revealed a curious animosity . . . toward Deymorin. It was an unexpected twist. He had anticipated his own discovery. The effect of Deymorin's own personality on these men might prove a far greater complication.

The voice shifted to his other side. Drew closer. "And does he know the whole of it, Suds? Did you tell him how it was your idea? Your deal? Might change his opinion of his property. Might not be so eager to keep so willingly popular a commodity."

"I doubt it."

"Doubt. Which?"

"Take your choice."

"Ah. Perhaps I can convince him."

And the presence rustled at his side. Mikhyel leaned forward, putting his body between the shadow and his brother.

"Keep your hands off him."

"How sweet." Once again, the tone shifted. Became mocking. "And how do you intend to stop me, my skinny little friend?"

"We had an agreement."

"Ah, yes. Crypt honor, and all that. Until tomorrow, then." The hand he'd stopped slid along his shoulder, and lifted his hair to an audible sniff. "Mmmmmm, yes. Tomorrow. After that, I fear you'll smell like all the rest and I might well lose interest." The hand tightened and pulled, just enough to remind Mikhyel it could be worse, and when he spoke again, his voice had shed that assumed disinterest. "I can protect you, . . . Suds. Men like you burn out fast without a protector."

"Like me?" he repeated, advisedly.

"Too skinny. Too clean. Too frail. The wolves love the weak ones, while they last."

"Wolves? Like you."

"Maybe. Then again, maybe not. But wouldn't you rather a lone wolf than a pack?"

"Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Looks can be deceptive, wolf."

"You think you can handle that pack? You think you can handle me?"

"I think we had a deal and I'd like to get some sleep."

The presence leaned close; a chuckle stirred the shorter hairs around his ear. "Sweet dreams, Suds."

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The Joys of Politics

The original summons had been to one of the small meeting rooms, but a notice left on the door had directed Mikhyel instead to this, the largest, most ostentatious auditorium in Brinmori Hall, with prime seating for three hundred, and a gallery for twice that number.

All for a meeting with eighteen people.

Intimidation. Anheliaa wasn't the only one skilled with the tactics.

However, in choosing this gallery, those would-be intimidators overplayed their hand. In general, Mikhyel dunMheric, representative of House Rhomandi, felt more at ease in the anonymity of this great hall than he ever did in a more intimate setting.

He stepped confidently through the doors and into the great hall, where prismal skylights sent sunlight in shafts to spotlight the podium at the acoustic focal point of the great, semicircular room.

Only as his eyes adjusted to the lighting, did he realize the change of venue was not the only tactical shift on the part of his would-be intimidators. That hall was packed, standing room only, with councillors, syndics, and anyone else who could justify their presence.

Defying all rules of protocol, Mikhyel went directly to that central podium and mounted it.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the Rhomatum Web." His voice rang in the eerily, unnaturally silent hall. "The history books describe the Rhomatum Syndicate of Nodes as an economic coalition, a union of legally autonomous city-states joined by a common and irrevocably interdependent energy source.

"That autonomy, my fellow citizens of the Web, is our individual strength---and our collective weakness.

"Those same history books show that for the first two decades of the fourth century After the Founding, the Rhomatum Syndicate has dealt with little more than trade disputes and keeping the leyroads clear of criminal activity that might interfere with the movement of goods. One by one, in the name of efficiency and profit, we have eliminated the programs that once guarded our borders against foreign invasion.

"I ask you now to consider what the history books will say fifty years from now regarding the decisions we make today.

"The Web, that fragile thread that binds individual cities into a single entity, is faltering. We need look no further than the nearest leylight to assure ourselves of that simple fact. We know the fact; we do not know the precise cause---yet.

"While we can rest assured that our ringmasters will isolate and repair the problem, eventually, even if the Web were to be restored to full capacity by the time we finish dinner tonight, the situation that led to our current state would still exist.

"Anheliaa is dying. That can be no surprise to anyone here. Her death will leave an unprecedented void in Rhomatum Tower. We must guard against that void. The mere possibility of a vacancy in Rhomatum has already generated one militant probe out of Mauritum. That immediate threat is gone, but Mauritum remains a very real, long-term complication.

"There can be no question that High Priest Garetti of Mauritum has designs on Rhomatum. He made his interest clear when he sent his junior-priest, Vandoshin romMaurii, into Rhomatum along with that probe. Had they managed to coerce their way into the Tower, as was their plan, Vandoshin romMaurii might well have seized control of the rings, securing Rhomatum for his superior.

"Thanks to Anheliaa, and the storm that temporarily took down the web, romMaurii won't be controlling anything. Her actions also resulted, unfortunately, in the chaos and loss of energy we're all of us all too familiar with. However, while concern for our current situation cannot be overlooked, I ask you to consider the possible alternatives. Annihilation of the rings, or Mauritumin rule.

"Thanks to the historical stability of the Rhomatum Syndicate, this first test of our defenses move was hesitant at best. The firestorm destroyed the entire party; there will be no firsthand accounts making their way back to High Priest Garetti. Mauritumin understanding of the event will necessarily be limited to the wildly speculative rumors which have been circulating our own cities for the past month.

"I know the truth of those days, my fellow citizens. I am willing to share that truth with you today. But the Mauritumin probe is only one incident. That which the incident implies is my concern.

"Rhomatum and her syndicate have gotten careless, there's no other word for it. There is no other excuse for the defenseless state into which we have fallen.

"Other interests, less traditional, but equally anxious to take advantage of Rhomatum's impending vulnerability, might well be organizing similar campaigns. History tells us that in the early years following the capping of Rhomatum, our rich lands attracted a variety of outsiders, both those who had been trying for generations to settle there, only to be driven out by the storms, and those living under the skies to which Darius shunted the valley storms.

"Until the ring of nodes was nearly complete, the Syndicate maintained border watches, and subsidized trained troops that could be ready to leave their farms or kilns or workshops and protect the storm-free corridors against invasion.

"When all the satellites except Khoratum were capped, the effectively continuous storm belt proved a more compelling deterrent than any human sentinel, and those border raids trickled to a virtual halt.

"And then, Anheliaa came to power. Anheliaa, my friends, has had an agenda her entire life. That fact is or should be non-news to all of us. Anheliaa wanted Khoratum capped, and over the years she pushed programs that shifted the web's energies and tax monies toward that singular purpose. She needed growth chambers beneath all the nodes, and she needed strong redundancies within all the Towers: she was prepared, my fellow syndics, to sacrifice every ringmaster within the web to control Khoratum.

"However, Anheliaa did cap Khoratum, without the loss of a single life, and we all know the result of that capping has been a decade of absolutely reliable ley-energy.

"A fact that we, as a collective unit, have rather blithely overlooked, was that Khoratum's capping also brought a significant reduction in the storm belt, both in width and intensity.

"I hope we have not delayed action for too long.

"Because as Anheliaa approaches her final hours, and with the control of Rhomatum Tower in doubt, our relaxed borders will appear increasingly attractive to outsiders. If the Syndicate is to survive in anything approaching its present form, we must reinstate the old patterns, revive the border watches and work as a unified nation, not independent entities.

"I personally accept no small part of the blame for this oversight. The Rhomandi have traditionally represented the interests of the web as a whole, not the interests of an individual node-city---not even Rhomatum. But I have become personally and painfully aware that for a generation, the Rhomandi have provided no true guidance, no vision toward a secure future.

"The Rhomandi are paying now for that dereliction.

"The Rhomandi are also coming to you armed with potential solutions---if you're interested.

"Everyone in this room knows that Anheliaa made individual agreements with every satellite Tower to ensure their cooperation in the capping. Some of those agreements are on record, others are not, though we all know they exist, for all we pretend they are secret.

"If the Syndicate intends to enforce those agreements, my brothers and I will not fight. Once Anheliaa is dead and unable to contest the decision, the Rhomandi fortune will be at your disposal, and the Rhomandi themselves will leave Rhomatum forever. Because such a decision, considering the scope of this unpredictable and unavoidable disaster, would ruin House Rhomandi financially before it satisfied all claims likely to come forward. But if such is the choice of the Syndicate, then the time of the Rhomandi is past, and my brothers and I have agreed that we will not be the source of yet one more division within the Syndicate.

"Obviously, House Rhomandi would wish otherwise. If the web is to continue, we need cooperation, not division. Rebuilding and regrouping, not blind vengeance. I hope, before I leave today, we will have come to an understanding that is best not for any individual, not for any individual node, but for the entire Rhomatum web."

He paused for breath. . . .

"Whatever questions you have, I shall answer. Willingly."

He could feel their eyes on him. Feel the opposing energies of hope and fear, confidence and distrust. . . .

"Whatever advice I can offer, I shall give. Willingly."

That sensation was nothing new to him. . . .

"If you would like to consider the House Rhomandi solutions, just ask."

It was the energy of life itself.

He let a slight smile curl his lip.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the Rhomatum Web," he ended, in the voice one frustrated critic had said could convince a hungry snake that an egg was a rose, "Mikhyel dunMheric is at your service."

***

"I told you we should have walked," Deymorin said, as he handed Kiyrstin from the floatercab to the Brinmori Hall dock.

"Better late than windblown, JD." Kiyrstin swept past him, her skirts held precisely free of the dock. "Politicians understand contempt. Besides, if that brother of yours hadn't run off with the Rhomandi coach, we'd have been here in plenty of time, now wouldn't we?"

Deymorin flipped a coin up to the independent cabby, who single-handed it, tipped his hat and eased the floater free of the dock, pedaling off in search of another fare.

"You know it was a mistake." Ignoring the throb in his head, he took the stairs two at a time to catch up with her. "Jerrik said Nikki thought we'd gone over already."

"Well, he was wrong, wasn't he?"

"And we were cutting it damned close."

Her mouth twitched. "True." She smoothed the front panels of the form-fitting bodice. "Even?"

"I'll let you know when my head quits vibrating. Rings, the lad can pack a mental punch."

"You three had best sort that out soon and lay down some ground rules, before one of you kills the other."

He grunted. Her point was well taken, but hardly necessary. Mikhyel's kindly reminder to get his ass to the meeting had sent him to his knees on the Rhomandi House threshold. One hesitated to consider what might have happened had he been on horseback, or standing on a Tower balcony.

His hip throbbed in memory of just such a fall that had nearly killed him once and long ago, and on the wake of the thought, a desperate plea from Mikhyel, elsewhere in this building, begging him to shut his head up.

{Sorry,} he sent back, and put forth the effort to block his thoughts, concentrating on the simple, practical aspects of placing one foot in front of the other. The technique wasn't completely effective, but Mikhyel claimed it helped.

And at least he'd gotten, in that brief contact, and the residual awareness of his brother, a sense, almost a flavor, of satisfaction.

"How's the meeting going?" Kiyrstin asked.

"Fi---" He blinked at her, wondering how she'd guessed, but they were at the lift and he dared not inquire in front of the silver-haired operator. They rode upward in silence, and when they were again alone and headed down the third-floor corridor: "How?"

"Did I know you were talking with Mikhyel? I'm sure I don't know. Perhaps something about the silence, and that vacant, witless look you get, I suppose."

"That obvious?"

"To a stranger, Rags."

"You might have said something before now."

"Waiting for the right moment."

"After the humor wore off?"

She glanced up at him, a seductive challenge.

"Dammit, Kiyrsti, it's not funny. It's one thing for me. Mikhyel can't afford to appear a fool."

"Mikhyel doesn't."

"Oh. ---Here it . . ." He stifled the curse that rose, sent a worried query to Mikhyel, received in return a vision of a crowded hall, a demand to hurry, and the first hint of real concern. {On our way, fry.}

He grabbed Kiyrstin's hand and pulled her toward the staircase. When she protested, he said:

"He's done it, Kiyrsti, he's done it. The lot of them---Syndicate and Council---every damned one of them, all there, and he's got them. You, m'love, are his icing." He laughed aloud as he pulled her up the stairs. "He's terrified what's going to come through the door. What have you done to the poor lad, Shepherdess? You should see the mental image he has of you."

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{Sucks-Pond-Water}

It was the hypogeum---or at least, a cave.

Mikhyel pushed himself up, away from ground that shifted beneath his palms like the softest sand, and confronted a cavern that could contain the Rhomandi Hypogeum several times over.

Miles of shifting, billowing leythium crystal draperies camouflaged the true depths of the ceiling. Thick, viscous leythium formed a living sea in which islands rose and subsided even as he watched. A sea whose subtly mutating shores fluxed in and out of sight, extending at times to depths his rational mind refused to accept.

Rational. Mikhyel stifled the laughter that threatened. Logic---the accepted rules of existence with which he'd grown up---had little bearing on his present situation.

In the center of the lake, something burned: multi-colored flames without smoke, without scent, unless that flame was the source of the aroma of fire-blossom tea that filled the air. Free, this time, of the cloyingly sweet honey.

Radiating from this seemingly boundless cavern, seemingly infinite corridors led to points of throbbing, pulsating color. Eighteen in all, each glimmering in a spectrum that centered about a different color . . . blue-green here, spring green there, deep, blood red . . .

Infinite. Boundless. The concepts were crazed, but those were the words his mind supplied.

He staggered to his feet and stood swaying, feet wide apart. He examined his arms for burns, for anything reminiscent of that other near-disastrous transportation to Boreton, but there was nothing. Rather, he felt energized. The all-consuming weariness, even the lingering aches from Nikki's attack were simply---gone.

A color of satisfaction. A scent of lazy curiosity. Belonging---he'd swear to it---to that presence he'd felt in the hypogeum. He recognized it as surely as he recognized the individual signatures of his brothers.

"Who are you?" he shouted. "Where are you and what do you want?"

{Want, want, want---}

The word echoed in his head, carrying with it that sense of welcome, of open arms waiting to draw him to some liquified fate.

{No, no. No!} he heard, and that protest wreaked of Deymorin. So, he wasn't entirely alone.

{Here?} he sent out into that strange aether.

{No! Dammit.} And with that denial, came an image of his own room, empty.

Mikhyel smiled to himself. Deymorin had not been drawn after him; in that, at least, he'd won.

And still that sense of welcome surrounded him. He turned slowly, allowing Deymorin to keep his mental foothold, seeking that presence that was not, definitely not Anheliaa. In fact, all sense of Anheliaa had vanished; only the corpse remained as a reminder of how he'd come here.

The entire cavern began to pulse with the light and color of leythium. Leythium lace draperies billowed in an unfelt breeze, as if the ley itself were breathing. Light rippled and pulsed down those corridors to the distant light sources, like blood passing down arteries. All around him, a leythium forest of glowing pillars oozed up from the floor to meet and merge with the lace draperies.

He reached a curious fingertip to the nearest leythium trunk. His finger sank into a substance that was neither liquid nor solid. He had no sense of texture, only of warmth and a rhythmic throb . . . like a heartbeat. He pressed deeper. His entire hand disappeared.

He closed his eyes, realized, in a half-awake way, that he'd sunk to his knees, and he leaned toward that welcoming warmth, feeling it creep up his arm to his elbow and higher. His other hand rose, without conscious thought.

{No! Khyel, stop!}

Nikki. This time it was Nikki calling him. Wanting him. Needing . . .

{Dammit, Khyel, how often do we have to go through this? Get back here. Now, dammit! I want to go back to bed!}

It was as if both brothers were there, pulling him away from that pillar, slapping his face as if he were hysterical. He could hear them, feel them, though they were far, far, far away . . .

But that warmth slid away from him, down his arm and off his fingertip, leaving no sensation at all, no sense of residual substance, only a memory.

{Well . . . Damn!}

For the first time, that inexplicable presence took firm mental form. Directly before him, the substance that seemed so firm beneath his feet liquified and began turning slowly, then expanded upward, twisting, contorting into a vaguely, human-like form.

Arms . . . legs. Three of the latter, until that third appendage gradually took the form of a tail that swept around the forming body and tapered to a tip that twitched just a finger's breadth from Mikhyel's bare foot.

He was enraptured. A detached part of Mikhyel's mind reached that conclusion when he found himself unable to look away from that twitching flash of iridescent scales. His eyes followed that line upward, past slender curves of waist and shoulder, up a long, swanlike neck to a face that defied description.

Fangs, scales---or perhaps the crystalline webbing that fluttered so freely all around them---facetted eyes . . . utterly inhuman, utterly beautiful.

Mikhyel gazed into those huge eyes, his neck painfully bent as he strained to take in a creature half again as tall as Deymorin, until, as if in response to that observation, the creature diminuated, took on proportions and features more like his own, until they faced one another, eye to eye, man to . . . almost man.

The creature extended a graceful hand, palm upward. A sense of attraction. Interest. . . . Hunger. This was the Source of interest.

{Come . . .}

"No . . ." Mikhyel whispered, having no breath for more, and he took a blind step backward. The ground gave beneath his bare foot, but insubstantial brotherly hands steadied him, and brotherly anger shouted at the creature to leave Mikhyel alone.

Fangs appeared, shrank to blunt, manlike teeth in a purely human smile. {You have associations.}

"I have brothers," Mikhyel stated aloud, knowing he could answer with that inner voice, but determinedly human in the face of this inhuman entity.

A creature of the ley. Tamshi, perhaps. But this creature had drawn him here. This creature wanted him, not the other way around. He would dictate the terms of this encounter, not this creature of Rhomatum node.

And with that decision, his fear vanished along with the shrinking uncertainty.

Humor filled the air, his mind, his body. Rich, internal, full-bodied laughter. Intrigue.

{Where have you been?} The creature's mind asked.

"Right overhead."

"And why . . ." The voice that reached his human ears from that long throat was a soft, sibilant hiss. Uncertain at first, gaining confidence with each syllable. ". . . have you not been brought to me before?"

One gliding step bridged the space between them and the creature reached a graceful hand to touch Mikhyel's face. Tasting him. Mikhyel, forcing himself to indifference, discovered, to his mild surprise, that he was fighting curiosity, not fear.

"Why," the creature continued, "have you not danced with the rings?"

"Danced?" Mikhyel laughed, the image of his graceless self flitting among the whirling dance rings too insanely humorous to ignore.

"Silly child, not those rings." The fingers drifted to his forehead and the hum and flash of the ringchamber filled his head.

"I've no talent---"

"What fool told you that?"

"I tried, but the rings wouldn't respond."

"I suppose not." The creature's chest rose in a heavy sigh. "Darius, you are not."

You have the power, child. You lack the drive. . . .

"Oh, yes, Anheliaa. Get rid of her, will you?" The creature waved a disinterested hand in the direction of the corpse. "I can't expel her beyond the web, and she's such a pollutant . . ."

"But . . ." Anheliaa's body should just disappear, as his mother had, as all those other bodies had through the years.

But the ley wasn't supposed to rise up into this amazing creature and converse with him.

Neither were corpses supposed to visit you in your room.

Was he truly going mad?

{Not at all, child. She's just been as stubborn in death as she was in life. She retained enough vitality within the web to pull these little tricks. Likely she's still here, if I cared to seek her out. But the body . . .} A sense of delicate revulsion permeated the thought. {I did think that youngest child of mine might take her . . . she seems to eat positively anything . . . and Anheliaa did control her wild tendencies at the last . . . but even she drew the line at Anheliaa . . .}

Body. Vitality. As if that which had accosted him in his room and Anheliaa were two different, however related, entities. And the 'youngest child' who had rejected Anheliaa . . . whom Anheliaa had 'controlled at last' . . . did the creature mean Khoratum? Was there another creature like this one beneath Khoratum?

Deymorin's 'Mother' perhaps?

Laughter. {Mother. Is that how she calls herself? I've been away . . . too . . . long . . .}

The creature had wandered off, or dissolved and reformed elsewhere, Mikhyel couldn't swear what exactly he'd seen. But weariness floated like a cloud about it, and it reclined in a graceful lizard-like swirl on a leythium ledge that rose to meet and surround its body.

{I'm tired, child. It's been . . . so very long since I've taken form.}

It raised a hand to him, gesturing desire, but without that internal pressure to comply, and Mikhyel rewarded that tempered approach, moving to kneel beside the leythium couch. The creature's fingers wove through his hair, and through that touch came a sense of pure pleasure, simple delight in the feeling of the strands slipping through fingers that hadn't felt anything for a long, long time.

And a sense of age that staggered human understanding. Mikhyel closed his eyes as the unearthly cavern shifted about him, images of geological ages as reflected in the cavern superimposed over his own sense of the world above---

{We call it the surface world, child.}

Teaching, as was the way with this creature, its nature driving it as surely as Mikhyel's own nature drove him to question, neverminding common sense dictated it was safer not to know.

Mikhyel fought back a surge of hope. As he'd suspected, the answers to their dilemma were here, if only he could . . .

"The web," he murmured, and gazed up into eyes that had no discernable pupils, but only color glittering from beneath half-cast lids.

{Yes, child? You're concerned . . . Fear. You shouldn't be . . . Time . . . time will heal . . .}

Mirym's words echoed in his mind. But they didn't have time. The Syndicate didn't.

"Is it Khoratum, . . . sir? My lord of Rhomatum? Is that the source of the problem?"

"My . . . lord." Gentle laughter. "Call me . . . call me Father, son of Darius. Perhaps my silly bud has the right of it. . . . Khoratum? Yessss. How did you . . ." Fingers brushed his mind, and his fears about the web, the plans for the trip rose and bubbled to the forefront of his mind. "Ah, how clever you are, child."

And in his mind, Anheliaa's purple essence flared: {Yes, by all means, go to the fools, make them work as one, my golden-tongued love. Promise them anything, but get them to repair Khoratum, and then force Persitum back into the web. And then, my darling, come back to me and---}

The creature of Rhomatum snarled and Anheliaa's presence shattered like crystal against stone. And the shards of her essence pierced Mikhyel's mind like tiny needles.

He cried out, protesting. The next moment, the creature filled him and the pain vanished.

{Forgive, son of Darius. I forgot the fragile nature of your mind . . .}

This time the creature's presence filled him, exploring, curious. Invasive. Mikhyel tried to push it out, tried to raise protections such as he built against his brothers, but to no avail.

"Damn you, get out!"

Light flared all around him, and he was alone again. Facetted eyes widened with interest.

{Darius you most definitely are not, child.}

"I never claimed to be. And I'm not your child! Is it Khoratum? If the masters unite, can they repair the damage?"

Fangs glittered as the smile ceased to mimic his own. {Do I answer, oh wise one? Or leave you to your fate?}

"And if I judge incorrectly? If it destroys you?"

{Destruction. I wonder . . . is that possible? Curious . . .}

"If it is, you won't be left with much time to ponder the sensation, now will you?"

Laughter. {Oh, I know the answer well enough, child of the surface world. But you . . . I think, perhaps . . .}

And an image filled him, of the web and the strands permeating the landscape, the taproots leading to each satellite, the damage, like a collapsed tunnel in the area of Boreton, on the Khoratum line. Not a bleeding wound. A . . . clogged pipe.

Laughter came. A sense of acknowledgement.

{Together, child, they could tunnel through with ease. Give them the picture, tell them to blow as one, and your problem is no longer . . .}

And abandoning that thought, the creature exuded an overwhelming curiosity. About him. And the creature's desire for him to stay, a need to teach, to impart the knowledge of the ages into a receptive mind. An answering passion surged within himself, but:

{I can't. I'm . . . I'm sorry. I can't stay.}

And his mind was filled with all he had to do, uniting the nodes, raising the armies, providing for the children . . .

{Children. Yes. Children.}

But that which his mind interpreted as child did not carry a sense of a mother's womb, but rather an image of buds, strands of personal substance oozing between cracks in the stone, sending tendrils deep into the earth. Growing. . .

{Growing old. Growing away. Go to the children. Tell them their source remembers them. Then come back to me, Darius . . .}

"I'm not . . ." Mikhyel's throat constricted on the admission. The creature had known Darius. Wanted . . . Darius, not Darius' inadequate several generations removed grandson.

{No . . . Not Darius. Son of Darius' son. Father of Darius' son. Child of the Mother who is a child . . .}

The words made no sense. The images echoing behind them were equally disjointed. The creature's awareness was shattering, shimmering as was its form, both, Mikhyel realized, taken for his sake, for his limited ability to understand.

{Come back to me, child. We'll find the answers together . . .}

Mikhyel grasped the boneless hand, knew despair when it turned to liquid and seeped between his fingers.

{I'll be back---}

But the creature was beyond hearing, and as the glow surrounded him, Mikhyel bent his head into his arms, not wanting to see the cavern disappear.

Copyright 1995, Jane S. Fancher
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