NO ONE HAD EVER SEEN the place where the Adamantean Sybil lived, in the heart of the Forbidden Forest.
In fact, as far as we knew, no one had ever gotten through to the heart of the Forbidden Forest. I guessed that that was probably why it was called Forbidden.
People had made the attempt, on occasion. Few talked about it afterward. There were rumors of unsavory creatures, things that destroyed and devoured in singularly unpleasant fashion. Not even Masorlin had ever penetrated the forest, although nobody really knew if he’d tried. But then again, there might not have been anything in there that he’d wanted.
The Sybil herself had only been seen on rare occasions. She had been described as a tall, thin, dark woman in her early twenties. She had been described as having long black hair which she wore pulled back from her face and caught in a clasp like a sort of ponytail. She was known to favor a full length black cloak. Nothing particularly remarkable, I thought, for a person who was touted as being responsible for the very existence of the world. I could have met her in line at the supermarket and never blinked an eye...except for the fact that the K’a-Lira, trained warriors all, reacted to the very mention of her with an unsettling mix of nervousness, awe, and outright fear. And that kind of shit was guaranteed to get my attention.
There was another thing. In the center of her forehead it was said that she wore a jewel which shone with a peculiar blue-green light. The jewel was the legendary Soul Pool, the gem-like thing that held, among other powers, the secret to the Remembering of the Five. The whole thing had a dungeons-and-dragons ﬂavor, as if one of the ’Sta had whipped it up around the campﬁre to scare kids. Or maybe had coded it up as a first-person shooter, except in our case it would've been a five-person shooter.
But I’d asked Sesounis about it. “It’s real, all right,” she’d said grimly. “Totally real.” There’d been something else in her voice, as well—something bitter. I’d made an overture about that, and she’d changed the subject.
It was with this background fresh in my mind that I awoke one morning to ﬁnd Mara and Sesounis pushing into my “room”, my little alcove in the rock passageways, dressed in traveling gear. Actually, Mara stood a little outside; if they'd both jammed in there, I wouldn't've been able to get off the bed.
“Going ﬁshing?” I ventured.
Mara grunted. Sesounis said, “It’s time to meet the Adamantean Sybil.”
“Great. Am I going to like this?”
Mara grunted again. Sesounis said, “We’ll see.”
“I see that both of you have packs. Does that mean I should be taking one?”
Mara grunted. Obviously she was full of enthusiasm for this trip. Sesounis said, “You catch on quick.”
“Aren’t the rest of the Five going?”
“No. Too much to be done here to spare all ﬁve. The three of us are going to hack our way into the Forbidden Forest and bring Her back here.”
"The Sybil." From the tone of her voice she might have been saying "The Donald".
I raised an eyebrow. “I thought that no one could enter the Forbidden Forest.”
Mara grunted yet again. This time Sesounis dug an elbow into her side, producing a still louder, startled grunt. “We are going to take unusual precautions.” Then, reprovingly, to Mara, “’If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’” She looked back at me ingenuously. “Bambi. Chapter 4, verse 26.”
I keep a pack ready, except for some essentials. I threw those in, hoisted the pack, and stood up. “Do the right people know we’re going? Otherwise, I’ll tell Elara and Tanis.”
“Better tell them,” Sesounis said. “A week, maybe.”
“A week’s vacation in the beautiful Forbidden Forest, huh? That’s the ﬁrst prize, I guess. What’s the second prize—two weeks?”
“Just hurry it up.” She towed Mara away. Before they turned the corner of the corridor Mara looked back at me with a particularly sour expression. She spread her arms helplessly, and then Sesounis jerked her out of sight.
So I did tell the right people, and then made my way to the surface as quickly as I could. The guard on watch at the cave mouth gave me a peculiar look as I went by, then seemed to regret it and settled for intently buffing a dirty spot on her armor.
I caught up with Sesounis and Mara not too far from the entrance. We walked a ways, but nobody put their packs on. “What’s up?”
Mara said, “We’re walking to Port Authority Cave.”
“Ah.” Port Authority Cave was the name I’d given the hole which was currently in use as a transit locus. Sesounis had suggested we keep a full crew there on duty around the clock, in case someone or something had to transit fast, and now that was going to pay off for us.
Port Authority Cave was about two kilometers from the rocky upthrust of Lerin; we wanted some warning in the event that Masorlin manufactured a newfangled attack group that could hack the wards and come through in force. We arrived briskly, with our blood up from the walk. The cave was operated and guarded by twenty warriors from Syn’a’Sta and K’a-Lira groups; they did some fancy salute when we came in, which reminded me of the massage-your-elbow thing I’d seen the Kori’Sta do.
Sesounis explained to the duty chief what we wanted and how long we’d be at it, while Mara and I piled our packs inside the locus, ﬁrst checking to make sure that something wasn’t about to come through from somewhere else; they were using the locus for two-way transport—dangerous if you weren’t careful. Mara dug out a lump of schelva, rubbed herself, and tossed it to me; I did the same, and passed it to Sesounis. My skin tingled ferociously, as it always did after a schelva rubdown, so I busied my hands with checking my pockets to keep from scratching. Then we entered the locus while the crew joined hands. We breathed deeply, relaxed, and immersed ourselves in the chant.
There was a ﬂicker, then blazing sunlight, and a whoomp of air as the pressure equalized to our new altitude. My head pulsed and pounded and slowly settled down. We rubbed our ears, waved our arms around, bounced up and down to help our bodies acclimate to the sudden change.
I peered around. We were atop a ﬂat rock at the edge of a vast, dark expanse of forest. The transition pattern was cut deeply into the rock, but heaps of dead leaves and debris gave the impression that this locus wasn't used very often. Mara hopped down, reached up and gave me a hand. Sesounis sat down on the edge of the rock and slid off to the ground. We dusted ourselves off and shouldered our packs. “Nobody gets any closer than this by doing a transit,” Mara said sourly. “From here, we walk.”
I raised an eyebrow.
Mara said, “Because She says so.” She made that capital-S hiss like water on a hot griddle.
“How is it that I have not heard of this person before?”
Instead of answering me, Mara turned her head to Sesounis. “Don’t you have enough trouble already?”, she said into Sesounis’ profile. “Do you have to go out and look for it?”
“Take it easy,” Sesounis said, stepping up the pace a bit.
“Well, okay,” I said, “how far do we walk?”
“Thirty klicks,” she said, looking straight ahead.
“Thirty kilometers? With no way to transit? What kind of terrain is it?”
“Mostly steep hills. Occasional swamps. Some cliffs.”
“And animals,” Mara added absently.
“What kinds of animals?”
“Do you mean just big animals, or do you mean big nasty animals?”
“Probably both. It’ll be interesting to ﬁnd out, won’t it?”
“And we’re just walking up to her door, huh? Over, under, around and through all that shit?”
“Nobody just walks up to visit the Sybil. She makes it impossible. That is, unless you really, really try.”
“How can she...”
“Trust me. She can.”
I was becoming exasperated. “Aren’t we busy enough?”, I snapped. “Do we really need to make this trip?”
Mara chuckled again. “Like we need smallpox.”
“Shut up,” Sesounis said, without much rancor. “We need to do it.”
I think she meant that for Mara, but I shut up. Fortunately, so did Mara—her enthusiasm was somewhere west of inspiring.
So was the terrain. It seemed to consist entirely of thick, tangled undergrowth interspersed with vines that Mara assured us were poisonous. The canopy closed overhead, leaving us in perpetual gloom, punctuated by harsh, eerie cries of birds we couldn’t see.
Shortly the ground sloped up sharply, and from then on anything that wasn’t a steep slope was gloomy bogs and swamps, buzzing with poisonous insects. Mara dug into her pack and produced a small ceramic jar. “Here,” she said, “Put some of this on.”
I unscrewed the top and peered in. The jar was partly filled with dark, slimy grease. I sniffed, and the top of my head nearly blew off. My nostrils seemed to explode. I coughed violently, stumbled, and pushed the jar away.
“Agh! What in hell is that?”
“Insect repellent. Works great.”
“No shit," I coughed out. "What do I die from first—the insects or the repellent?”
“Use it. Stinking like last month’s garbage is better than waking up and finding a vampire butterfly inside your pants leg.”
I shuddered. Sesounis looked amused for the first time on this trip. “I can tell you from personal experience that it does come off,” she said. Then, more reflectively: “Well, wear off.”
“I am much encouraged by this news. When we get back, maybe they’ll only make us sleep outside the cave for a few weeks.”
Once I was done bitching we slathered ourselves, and then each other where we couldn’t reach. I thought I was going to suffocate from the stink. Then I noticed a fat insect with a long, shiny needle for a snout zoom toward Mara, change its mind in midair and zoom hastily away. It made an irritating tenor buzz as it went by. I decided that the smell wasn’t so bad after all.
We packed up and pushed on, this time without conversation. We were too busy climbing or hacking.
Darkness came early under the canopy, and we made camp in a clearing at the foot of a vertical rock face. We set up our tiny pack tents, and I broke out some dried meat and fruit and laid a ﬁre to make tea.
“You can’t do that,” Mara said.
“Why can’t I do it?”
“She doesn’t allow ﬁres.”
“The Adamantean Sybil. You thought I meant Margaret Thatcher?”
“Well, how in hell is she going to ﬁnd out? Cameras in hollow trees?”
“Try it,” she grunted.
I know ﬁres inside and out. In Girl Scouts I was one of the best—friction, burning glasses (much harder than you would think), hypergolic mixtures, ﬂint and steel, and, in dire emergency, just plain stupid stuff like sodium.
I kept at it for quite a while before I ﬁnally gave up. My hands were sore, and I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I ﬁnally said, “I see what you mean.”
“This is a distributive lesson,” Mara said. “It applies to everything else here as well. I knew you would have to see it before it could sink in. You’ll save us all a great deal of time if you pay attention to the ground rules from here on.”
“I may be slow, but I’m not stupid. I’ll pay attention.”
“They’re not that complex. No ﬁres. No oxidation at all, in fact, except for metabolism. No weapons, except for athames. Rumor has it that you can carry a bow in here, but it would be useless in this undergrowth anyway, unless you happened to catch someone in a clearing. Too much heavy foliage.”
We pitched camp in a circle, sat down and shared some dried meat, a candy bar, and a few swigs of cold water. Because of the canopy and the slope, darkness fell quickly, and we turned in at once, to take advantage of as early a start as we could.
“Why does everybody put up with this?” I inquired sleepily, mainly of myself.
“Not everybody,” Sesounis’ voice answered, mufﬂed by her sleeping bag. “Mostly the K’a-Lira. We go along out of respect, except where we haven’t a choice.”
“Well, why do the K’a-Lira do it?”
“She has something they want.”
“Something they want? What is it?”
“Hard to explain. You’ll ﬁnd out.”
“Yeah, I bet I will.”
I decided that for now I was happier not knowing. So I snuggled down in my bag and blanked out.
I AWOKE FROM A NIGHTMARE IN WHICH some nauseating monster was trying to devour me feet ﬁrst. I lay awake for a few minutes, consciously slowing my breathing and quieting my thoughts. When the adrenalin had receded, I turned over in my sleeping bag and snuggled down.
Outside my tent, the monster from my nightmare let out a long, ground-shaking snarl, full of subsonics that made all the hair on my body spring to full attention. I could hear Mara and Sesounis thrashing out of their sleeping bags.
“Snologister!” Mara shouted.
“Holy shit,” Sesounis said. What in hell is one doing this low?”
“She must have screwed around with their parameters. Khashti!”
“Present!” I had already struggled out of my sleeping bag, but had kicked my boots somewhere in the dark. I grabbed my athame and stuck my head out of the tent. I was immediately sorry I had.
The tiny clearing was dimly illuminated by moonlight ﬁltering through the canopy. Looming over us—and I mean looming—was something that looked like a cross between a tyrannosaur and a Sherman tank. It had an enormous mouth ﬁlled with pointed teeth, and it drooled.
The thing saw Mara, and lunged for her. She let out a yelp of fear, and dove for cover, fetching up at the foot of a huge boulder. As she scrambled frantically behind it, the enormous jaws crashed together behind her, sending ropes of spittle ﬂying.
Sesounis and I took off for cover of our own. Right behind us was a small cleft in the rock face. We had a brief struggle to see who could squeeze through it ﬁrst. As we fell inside, the thing smashed at the cleft with a paw the size of a Mercedes. The rock sang like a bell, and chips and dust rained from the roof. I sneezed violently, my eyes watering and stinging.
I wiped my nose and crawled back to the opening, but as I was about to stick my head out the thing smashed at the cleft again. The ground shook, and we were showered with chunks of rock and clods of earth. I scuttled away from the opening, and fetched up against Sesounis. She was cursing in a steady monotone. “May she rot in perpetual kostimazan slime. May thousands of her illegitimate syphilitic children shit on her grave.” She smacked her palm into the wall. “Damn! This is so unnecessary!”
She took a slow breath and calmed down. “It could be otherwise. She could just let us walk in if she wanted to. This shit is just called taking your role too seriously. She could...” She’d started to rev up again, but seemed to catch herself. She heaved a deep sigh, and shrugged her shoulders. “Ah well. This is the way she wants it.”
I was already pretty annoyed. “The way she wants it? Does that mean we have to want it?"
Sesounis looked grim. “Believe me, if the Sybil wants it, then we want it too. Messing with her is just too damn dangerous.”
"How about a recall election, or something? Send the Terminator in?”
She looked wistfully off into the distance for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No, the damn top is off the worm can. We have to play by her rules. For now, anyway. Maybe when this is over…" she shook her head. "Ah, shit, who knows.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Not much. Just hope that the goddam snologister only tramples our stuff, rather than tearing it all to hell. Snologisters are only active at night. I just never expected one at this altitude. We’ll be able to get away easily in the morning, as long as Mara doesn’t do anything stupid.”
Outside, there was an ear-splitting screech, like a bulldozer tearing off a corrugated tin roof, followed by a roar of rage and pain.
“Mara is doing something stupid.”
“Why am I not surprised?” She crawled past me in the dark and stuck her head out of the cleft. After a few seconds she shouted “Wup—let’s go!”
I heard her scrabbling back out through the cleft. I followed as fast as I could. Outside, The snologister had lost all interest in us and our rock; it was fully occupied with Mara, who had climbed a sturdy tree and, from above its reach, was throwing rocks at its nose. Her aim, while in no way seriously harmful to the thing, was very accurate, and it was clear that it hated having its nose insulted. It was smashing at the tree and trying to climb it, although it wasn’t possible for something that large. At ﬁrst I was afraid for the tree, and consequently for Mara, but she’d chosen well. Not even that monstrosity was going to be able to knock down a tree that thick. When the snologister hit it, she wrapped her arms and legs around the limb and hung on until things steadied down. Then she whacked it with another rock, which set off another paroxysm of snarls and assaults on the tree.
“Dammit, Mara!” Sesounis screamed at her. “Let the damn thing alone!”
“Fuck that stuff!” Mara yelled back from her perch about ﬁfty feet up. “The fucking thing nearly―whuff!—got me—” It had smashed at the tree again, throwing her down on the branch— “and I’ll be damned if it just walks away!” She raised an arm, another rock in her hand.
“MARA! STOP IT!”
She ﬂinched, then slowly lowered the rock.
“Shit, this is serious! If you piss the thing off enough, what about the rest of us? Give us a break! In a few hours it’ll be dormant anyway.”
“Oh, hell,” Mara said.
No longer tortured by the furious hellion in the tree, the snologister turned its attention to us. Sesounis, displaying what I thought must be a suicidal impulse, raced across its ﬁeld of vision, bent to snatch her pack from the mashed debris of camp, and kept going, the pack bouncing along behind her. The thing’s head turned to follow her, and it raised a huge arm. I shouted something at it, just a loud unintelligible sound, to draw its attention from her, and sure enough, the huge, blunt head swung my way. Sesounis dived behind a boulder with the pack. Uh-oh, I thought, now I'm the only target in sight.
I made it back to the cleft in the rock in near zero time, with the monster so close behind me I could smell its dark rooty odor. Once again the rock shuddered as it smashed into it, and I sneezed beneath a shower of rock debris and dirt.
After a minute or two things quieted down. I cautiously stuck my head out. The snologister was mooching ponderously around the campsite, snufﬂing at our tents, its tail brushing against trees and knocking off huge bark chunks. From behind her boulder, Sesounis must have seen me, because she shouted, “Tuck in there and snooze until daylight. Snologisters sleep during the day.”
“Sure, okay,” I shouted back. It seemed the only sensible thing to do.
I lay awake on the dirt and rock chips for a long time, waiting for the ﬁghting energy to dissipate. Finally, I think I slept for a while. The next thing I knew, it was light in the cave, and I could hear a bird outside.
I stuck my head out and looked around. The sun was slanting through the trees, warming the rock face. Mara was asleep in the fork where her branch met the tree trunk. Sesounis wasn’t in sight. The snologister was lying down in the center of the tiny clearing, snoring away on top of our gear.
Sesounis stepped quietly out from behind her boulder and walked over to me, carrying her pack, carefully skirting the immense rumbling hulk. “’Morning,” she said. “Sorry about the ruckus last night.” She opened her pack and handed me two trail biscuits, took one for herself.
“Don’t mention it.”
We munched for a minute. I looked over at Sleeping Beauty. “What now?”
“Nothing, actually, although this is going to cost us an extra day. The thing will sleep through anything as long as the sun’s up, but it’s too heavy to move, and I don’t think it’s wise to abandon all our stuff.”
“Particularly my boots.”
“Yeah. Anyway, let’s just hang out and make ourselves scarce around nightfall, when the thing will most likely amble away. Then we can collect our stuff, make safe camp, and move on next morning. From now on we’ll know to watch out for them even at this altitude.”
“I heard Mara say something about parameters. Is this a natural creature?”
“What’s natural mean in Ktahmet? But I know what you mean. The Sybil can create critters just like Masorlin can, within stricter limits. She doesn’t do it at random. And since the whole show started she hasn’t made any more, although she does, apparently, screw around with existing ones.”
“Quite a person, this Sybil.”
“Yeah. Well, I told you she likes privacy.”
“Hi, kids,” Mara said sleepily from her tree.
Sesounis looked up, a sour expression on her face. “Hrmph.”
Mara came down the tree hand over foot over hand, like a large monkey. She was very agile at it. When she was on the ground she said, in a small, hurt voice, “Can’t I have a little fun? You aren’t really angry, are you?”
“Who, me? Of course not. In fact, I make an effort to choose friends who are likely to get me killed.”
Mara frowned. “Any friend who isn’t likely to get you killed isn’t likely to be someone in whom you are interested.”
Sesounis sighed, shrugging her shoulders. “Ah, yes, the eternal dilemma. Predictability or chance. A safe life, or an interesting one. Sane, comfortable friends, or you.”
Mara sidled up to her, looking away and pouting, then bumped hips and put her arm around Sesounis’ waist. It was clearly a clown act. Finally she looked at Sesounis and the two pecked each other on the lips.
“Forgiven?” Mara said.
“I suppose so.”
“Not good enough.”
“Why don’t you take up with Khaper? She’ll forgive anything.”
“Khaper doesn’t invite me into deadly swamps.”
“Not any more, anyway.”
Mara looked sideways at her. I said, “ Do you consider that an advantage, or a liability?”
“I consider it boring.”
I said, “I feel your pain. Life with Khaper might be considered less than exciting. Nevertheless, it could remain life. That sure as hell appeals to me.”
Mara disengaged from Sesounis, took a trail biscuit from Sesounis’ pack, put half the biscuit in her mouth, and extended her face to Sesounis, who bit off the other half. “It’s an existential problem,” she said, around the biscuit. “How do you enjoy living on the edge if you keep falling off?”
Sesounis bit off her biscuit and took the protruding part out of her mouth. “You only get to fall off once. There’s the rub.”
Mara turned until they were front to front and pressed their hips hard together, putting her arm around Sesounis at buttock level. “No, there’s the rub.”
“That’s also the rub, all right,” Sesounis said, swiveling her hips and chewing her biscuit. It was clear that her heart wasn’t in it.
“Why so enthusiastic?”
“Georgia on my mind.”
This profound interchange was interrupted by a deep bass growl from the center of the clearing. The subsonics were stunning. Inanely I wished for a good condenser microphone and a Nagra 4C analog tape recorder. I envisioned Ben Burtt, back at Skywalker Ranch, and his eyes when he heard the recording. Like dinner plates.
For an instant I didn’t dare look, but Sesounis and Mara were already looking. The monster was awake and glaring at us. It started to heave its many-tonned bulk to its feet.
“Jeezus!” I said, sprinting for the rocks. We scattered, diving for cover, and as I approached the cleft my bare foot caught in a root and I went sprawling. For a second, everything went blazing white. I knew I was flat on the ground, but completely disoriented. I heard the thing bellow, felt the ground shake, but I couldn’t get my bearings. I did have the presence of mind to be terriﬁed.
From somewhere I heard Sesounis’ Valkyrie shriek and the thing’s answering roar, and I knew she was trying to distract it. After a few more seconds, though, things steadied down and I looked around.
Sesounis was behind a boulder on the opposite side of the clearing, taunting the snologister, which was trying to uproot the boulder to get at her. Mara was ninety degrees around the clearing, gathering rocks. I pulled myself to my feet, and was rewarded by a white hot lance of pain from my left ankle. Shit, I thought, what lousy timing!
But this was daytime and I was fully awake, not just rousted from sleep. I scanned the rocks, hobbled toward them, and jumped at the vertical face closest to me, wishing for a bag of chalk. It was full day, the rock didn’t seem to be old or ﬂaky and the climb couldn’t have been worse than 5-9; there was a crack that started almost at ground level and rose for almost 20 meters. I practically swarmed up, jamming both ﬁsts and my right foot, until I looked over my shoulder and I was above the thing’s head. Mara saw me and let out a war whoop, whereupon the thing turned its attention from Sesounis to her.
Off to my left and slightly below was a small ledge. I sidled towards it, using my ﬁngertips and a slight ridge for the traverse, until I could stand on it. Then I carefully turned around so I was facing out, favoring my left foot, and drew my athame. “Get him over here!” I shouted to Mara. I could see Sesounis gaping at me.
She got the idea, and began herding it my way, whooping and hollering and leading it without getting too close. I shut up and tried to look like a rock. Sesounis came out from behind her boulder and joined in. It took them two times around the clearing, during which time the thing came terribly close to getting Mara, before it was directly beneath me, facing away, the top of its enormous skull no more than four meters below and two meters out. Brieﬂy I thought of an escape plan if this didn’t work, decided there weren’t any good ones, and concentrated on the task at hand. Any vertebrate (I hoped to hell it was a vertebrate) had a place at the back of the skull where the spine was very close to the surface. At any rate, this manufactured critter had the right landmarks. I held the athame high over my head, point facing forward, and simply fell off the ledge, body straight.
I landed with a tremendous shock that knocked all the wind out of me. I guess I had expected the thing to have a little give, some fatty tissue. No such luck; it was built like a rock. But my athame, plus my weight and the impact of the fall, broke through the snologister’s tough hide and stuck in something. Frantically I gripped the neck with both knees, worked the point free, and stabbed and slashed into the wound, trying with all my strength for a vital spot.
The thing responded instantly by pitching forward, taking me totally by surprise. I hadn’t prepared in any way for a fall, and I wasn’t about to let go of the athame. But at the last instant I think I realized that staying aboard was deadly. So I let go, hit the ground rolling and kept rolling as long as I could. There was an enormous concussion as the thing hit at the same time, followed by a rain of dead branches, bark, nuts and debris from the surrounding trees.
I rolled to my feet as quickly as I could, reminded by a stab of pain to stay off the left one, ready to jump to safety. But there wasn’t need. The thing was down, slowly thrashing, but making no attempt to rise. Sesounis and Mara looked at it, looked at me.
“Whew,” Sesounis said, echoing my thoughts.
Mara grinned. “Snazzy.”
“Only my usual performance,” I said, shakily. I had no idea if what I'd done was what did it in. I watched it for a minute to get a feel for its motion, then hopped in close behind its head and retrieved my athame.
“That’s dangerous,” Mara said.
“I know. The athame is worth it.”
“Damn,” Sesounis breathed.
“No, really, I need this knife.”
“That’s not what I meant. This walking lump of pigmeat was awake during the day. That means trouble.”
“Whatever trouble may be coming our way,” I said, “we all deserve a breather. I, for one, am going to sit down and wrap my damn ankle. Then let’s talk about a plan to head off any repeat performances, and, if this show must go on, let’s get to it. I want to be out of here already. At least I know what to expect from my enemies.”
Sesounis was still lost in her reverie. “If she’s screwing around with snologisters,” she muttered, “who knows what else she’s doing?”
I stared at her, exasperated. “And this is a friend? An ally?”
“I know, with her for a friend who needs enemies. Yes, she is an ally. She’s just...idiosyncratic.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
Fortunately, the thing hadn’t fallen on our campsite. I retrieved my pack from the welter of trampled tents and got my elastic bandage. While I wrapped, Sesounis paced, frowning. “Maybe we should reconsider,” she muttered.
Mara looked up. “That sounds like a good idea, but it’s not. She’s been getting uppity.”
“Witness that excursion into the Merien alluvial fan.”
“Yeah. I haven’t the faintest idea what that was about.”
“Nor I, and the K’a-Lira don’t care. They’d follow her into Kali’s mouth.”
“Well, that settles that. We are going to ﬁnd out what is up with her.”
I had no idea of any of the events they'd mentioned. “Or die in the attempt?” I said, annoyed.
“Nobody dies around the Sybil,” Mara said, her voice tinged with bitterness.
* * *
WE PUSHED ON. Higher and higher. Through swamps and bogs and grisly foliage. At one point we heard roaring and crashing away off in the woods behind us, but whatever it was never came near us. Occasionally Mara would point out some particularly interesting species of death-dealing plant, like the tall, lithe trees that shot poison darts. But for the most part, we just kept moving. Having learned our lesson, we always made safe camp. Consequently we weren’t bothered again. Or maybe it was just dumb luck.
After two days of this we were pretty shot. The undergrowth was relentless, and our arms were exhausted and bleeding from endless hacking and clearing. Then we emerged into a long, deep canyon, in a cut at the bottom of which was a roaring, fast- moving river, about ten meters wide. The cut was maybe thirty meters deep, and there was a log bridge over it. To one side of this bridge, someone was seated on the ground, with its back to a rock. We were too far away to see any details about the person, except that it wore a large, shapeless black garment.
I looked at Sesounis. Sesounis looked at Mara. Mara shrugged.
We started down, picking our way through the rocks and spiny growth. As we got closer, the ﬁgure resolved itself into that of a bent, wrinkled old woman.
Eventually we approached to within a few meters, and stopped. The old woman slowly looked up at us.
We stood in silence for a few moments.
“Good cess, Crone,” Sesounis said, shifting into formal Leria. Wow, I envied her that ease with language -- I could still barely ask directions.
“Hail, travelers,” the old woman said, in a thin, reedy voice.
“We come as strangers to this place. Pray, what canst thou tell us of these lands?”
The old woman looked us over with piercing, birdlike eyes. “I can tell thee nothing that thou dost not already know.”
“Bull pucky,” Mara said under her breath.
“Shut up,” Sesounis said under hers. Then, to the crone, “Then might we bid thee health and long life, and return to the pursuit of our quest. Alana, sei khari m’na d’nnistu—May thy days be long and pleasant.” She started toward the bridge, with us in tow.
“Hold,” the crone said.
We stopped and waited.
“Nay, but none may cross this bridge, save that they have bested in wrestling the Guardian thereof,” she said, in the same reedy voice.
“Gladly will we so do, if thou shalt only be so kind as to direct us to that worthy individual.”
“You address her now.”
Sesounis slowly looked her up and down. It didn’t take very long. Mara ﬁdgeted.
“Old woman, fain would I not do this thing.”
“The choice be not thine, for absent the contest, thou shalt not essay the crossing.”
Sesounis stood thinking.
“Do it,” Mara whispered.
“You do it,” she whispered back.
“Okay, I will.” Mara unsheathed her athame, bent and placed it on the ground. “Old woman, I accept thy challenge.” She stepped forward, her face bearing an expression more of curiosity than of anything else.
There was a blur of motion, a heavy thud that I felt in my shoes, and Mara lay on her back, stunned. Sesounis slowly shook her head, then bent and helped Mara sit up. Mara sagged back against her, looking vaguely off into the distance and rubbing her forearm, where a large purple bruise was already taking shape.
Something was beginning to stir in the back of my mind, something which was apparently not stirring in the minds of either Mara or Sesounis.
“Ah, well,” Sesounis said. She eased Mara down, stood up, and faced the crone. “Old woman, though thou hast bested my sister, fain would I now accept thy challenge as well.”
“As thou wishest it, so shall it be,” the crone said. “And as with thy sister, so with thee.”
Sesounis also unsheathed her athame, picked up Mara’s, and handed both to me. “Don’t leave those unguarded,” she muttered. Then she turned, and, with great caution, approached the crone. Mara struggled to a sitting position to get a better view. I moved so that she could lean against my legs.
Sesounis approached with considerable caution, knees bent, body ﬂexed, arms ready. The crone merely turned to keep full face toward her, shrugging the cowl of her robe out of the way.
Sesounis carefully extended one arm and moved to place it on the crone’s shoulder. The crone moved away. Sesounis followed, again raising her arm, and the crone lifted an arm to block her, again moving away. They circled, once, twice, and then stopped, facing each other. They stood that way for a fairly long time, looking at each other, and then Sesounis moved very fast.
Again there was that blur of motion, the heavy thud, and Sesounis lay on the ground, her long black hair swirling down around her like dust.
I ran forward and bent to help her, leaving Mara to guard the athames. She was stunned and woozy, but she struggled to a sitting position and waved me away. “I’m all right,” she said, brushing feebly at her hair with one hand.
I stood up, that thing in the back of my mind stirring more strongly. The crone looked at me, without any inﬂection.
“Guess it’s my turn, huh?” I said.
She nodded. “If so thou wishest.”
“Very well." I thought ahead about how to construct the sentence, then said "Old woman, though thou hast bested my sisters, still fain would I accept thy challenge.”
“As thou wishest, so shall it be. May thy fortune prove better than thy sisters’.” Her robe wasn’t even mussed.
“Watch the hell out,” Mara said under her breath.
I was thinking fast. Somewhere, somewhen, I’d been through this, and I knew the key to it—if I could only recall it.
I slowly unsheathed my athame, stalling for time. It had to be one of only a few things. What was her name? When did it happen? Did it happen?
I Made sure that Mara was comfortable, handed the athames to her, and turned to face the crone. She was watching me, bright birdlike eyes alert. I was thinking that cross-context shit was a bitch. It was coming back now...I thought I had it.
“How heavy are we feeling this morning?” I inquired pleasantly.
Her eyes narrowed. “Too heavy to lift?” I said.
She took the slightest step back. I started forward, and she raised her hand in a quick, sweeping gesture.
She and the bridge and the edge of the cut receded rapidly away and upwards. I found that I was climbing a long, steep tunnel, with her at the other end. I closed my eyes, and the sense of climbing disappeared. I opened them again, and she was getting even higher, even farther away. The slope was becoming impossible. I closed my eyes again, tightly, did some quick mental ﬁguring, and lunged forward.
I got a good handful of robe, and something struck me a stunning blow across the back. I didn’t let go. I hung on and opened my eyes.
The sky darkened, and a lightning bolt flared across it, followed by a bellow of thunder. Rapidly, her body grew, became as large as a barrel. Her arms and legs became enormous, musclebound treetrunks. She laughed, and her voice was like the roar of the angry ocean. Another stunning blow across my back. It got darker.
I let go of her robe with one hand and grabbed her leg. Then transferred the other hand. Another heavy blow on my back, and I thought my spine was about to split. I bent my knees, set my legs, and heaved. It felt as though she were set in iron, but something moved.
She shrieked like a thousand bugles loaded with spittle. A luminous crack appeared in the air between me and the bridge, and I looked through into—something. Gritting my teeth, I set my legs and heaved again.
“Don’t do it !” she screamed. “Don’t lift me! You’ll split the metric!”
“Uncle?” I gritted, still straining upwards. I was scared I'd pop a blood vessel.
“Yes, uncle, uncle! Anything you say, only stop lifting!”
“All right, then.” I released her leg, gasping for air and trying not to show it.
Instantly, the sun came out. The ground ﬂattened, the sky cleared. Best of all, the crack in the air vanished. I suppressed a shudder.
Sesounis and Mara were looking at us, stunned. I looked down at the little crone. She was once again a little crone, sitting on the ground, holding her head in her hands.
I stood up straight, or tried to, while struggling to get my wind back. When my breathing was nearly down to normal, I looked at the crone again.
“Not bad, eh?”
She looked up at me. “Thine abilities are commendable.”
“Thou art most welcome.”
“Just where are you?”
She paused a beat. “I am everywhere...”
“Oh, cut the crap, will you? We’re among friends.”
“Well, it’s pretty convincing for a projection, isn’t it?”
“Disney would be pleased.”
“Disney is pleased. We struck a deal sometime back...”
“Look,” I said, “why don’t the three of us come on down and sit a spell? We’ve got stuff to discuss, and I could use some coffee.”
She considered this for a moment. As she did so, her outlines wavered brieﬂy, then steadied. “Sure. I’ve had enough entertainment for one day. I guess it’s time for some work.”
“Wonderful. Can you direct us in?”
“Certainly. Cross the bridge, follow the path over the rise for a kilometer or so. Don’t stray off the path. You’ll see it— Sybil Hyatt. I’m in Room 2254.”
She leaned back against the bridge and pulled her cowl over her head. I walked back and collected Mara and Sesounis, both of whom were gaping at me.
Mara opened her mouth ﬁrst. “What in the name of the Blue Mother was that all about?”
I shrugged. “I think I know this person.” Then I sat down with my back to a tree and allowed myself the luxury of trembling from suppressed tension and relief. I wanted to just breathe, long and slow, for a minute or so.
Sesounis squatted and looked thoughtfully into my eyes. After a bit she said, “You've hit on an interesting piece, all right. I thought that all of our memories were common.”
“Yes. This has interesting corollaries.”
“Well, for now let’s pursue the task at hand and discuss the corollaries later. Are you both ready to walk?”
Mara snorted. “After one fall?”
“Of course,” Sesounis said.
“Okay, then forward we go.” I let out a huff of air and bounced up, or tried to; I was stiff from sitting and a little off balance, and I bumped my shoulder on the tree. I covered it up as best I could, and we collected our athames and walked to the bridge. As we set foot on it, the crone looked up brieﬂy and said, in the same reedy voice, “Remember—don’t stray off the path.”
“Gotcha,” I said.
“Then good cess to thee.”
We crossed the bridge, made the rise, and swung out briskly for the last kilometer. Mara kept nervously eyeing the foliage on either side. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “I think we’re perfectly safe now.”
“You think,” she said, still looking around.
“I believe you,” Sesounis said, “but I still don’t blame Mara. Who—or rather, what—was that, anyway?”
“A projection, of sorts. A holographic feelie. I don’t know exactly how it’s done, but that’s the result.”
“You shared something of that with her from sometime before?”
I shook my head, then nodded, then shook my head again. “Well, sort of. I don't know how to explain it. It’s not like the way that the Five shared a previous common experience. It’s either previous in some other sense, or else it’s alternate.”
She chewed her lip. “Alternate, eh? Hmm.”
We topped the next rise. Mara, who was walking ahead, said “There it is.”
There it was, all right—the structure that the crone had called the Sybil Hyatt. It was a tall, spindly tower, light tan in general color, maybe thirty meters high, and not at all straight. It gave the impression that someone had made a series of sand towers and piled them haphazardly on top of each other. Here and there, dormers and cupolas stuck out from the sides, with ropes and banners and items of linen hanging from some of them. There was a conical cap atop the whole thing, with a balcony running around below it. All told, it put me in mind of something the Seven Dwarves might like.
We walked briskly down the slope. For a few minutes we lost the tower in the trees, then we came out of the high growth into the meadow where the tower stood. The path we were on continued off to our left, and the path to the tower took off to the right.
Mara eyed the fork in the road uncomfortably. “She said to stay on the path. Do you suppose she meant this path, or the one to the tower?”
“I don’t think it’s critical. I just think she meant to stay out of the woods.”
Sesounis looked at the tower, then the woods. “I’m inclined to agree.”
“Well, what’s life for.” So we swung down the path toward the tower. Still, I was a little bit relieved when nothing untoward happened.
Close up, the tower was taller than it seemed, and funkier. It appeared to be made of dried mud, and was cracked, with straw protruding from between some of the blocks. Here and there, chunks were falling out. There was a low wooden door, rounded on top, with a rope dangling to one side bearing a smudged three-by-ﬁve ﬁle card with the message “RNIG ALSO.” I knocked, and pulled the rope for good measure.
“Come on up,” a voice called.
I turned the knob, but nothing happened. After a few seconds, the voice said, “Push hard!” I did, but still no luck. Presently the voice said “Door stuck again? Hell! Listen, use the ladder, will you?”
For the ﬁrst time we noticed the rope ladder. It was about forty degrees around the side of the tower, and hung from a protruding dormer about ten meters up. We walked around and inspected it. It seemed sound enough; and after a glance at each other, I started up ﬁrst, followed by Sesounis and Mara.
I hate unsupported rope ladders; I'd been on one once in a gym when I was a kid, and it’s unnerving to always be climbing horizontally in order to get somewhere vertical. But at least it’s harmless. In a moment or two I was pulling myself into the dormer window.
The tower appeared to be bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. The room we were in was of medium size and crammed with equipment of all kinds. A small rolltop desk stood against one wall, open, with papers and ﬁle folders overﬂowing from it onto the chair and ﬂoor. Two ﬁle cabinets stood on either side of a door in the other wall, most of their drawers partly open, folders protruding, papers protruding from the folders. A long table against the opposite wall was crammed with open books piled helter-skelter on top of each other, as well as with a staggering array of organic chemical apparatus—retorts, stills, ﬂasks, connected together by yards of transparent tubing. The fourth wall was ﬂoor-to-ceiling books, and in the center of the room was a battered wooden table covered with what seemed to be electronic apparatus in various stages of disembowelment. I got the feeling that nothing on the table worked.
What made the tower seem bigger on the inside was the room that we could see through the arched doorway. It was far more spacious, with light, whitewashed walls. It was also quite bright, brighter than the two windows I could see should have allowed. The ﬂoor was ﬂagstone, and the room almost bare. The only furniture was a massive, modern executive desk made of dark wood, facing the door, and three ofﬁce chairs. Behind the desk sat the thin, dark woman with the green jewel in her forehead.
“Have a seat,” she said, rising to greet us.
We came in, slowly. It was a scene for which the word “acontextual” was invented. We were in our hiking and climbing gear, scratched, reeking, dirty, worn and tired. She smelled of fresh mint and sported a clean silk jumpsuit and sandals. She noticed it too, because she said “Please forgive my lack of civility. I don’t have too many visitors. Would you like to clean up ﬁrst, have a meal?”
The three of us looked at each other. “It’s all right, I think,” I said to Mara and Sesounis, not really knowing why I thought so. They nodded. “Certainly,” I said to the Sybil.
“Fine,” she said, clapping her hands twice. We stood there for a moment; then there was a clatter of hooves in the other room, and something stuck its head in the door. It was about a meter tall, four-footed, with tiny black cloven hooves. The front part resembled a stereotyped human male, very hairy, with a short, pointed beard and pointed ears with a small horn behind each. The effect was much like a classical satyr. It looked us up and down with evident surprise.
“How may I assist you?” it said, in a small voice that seemed right for its size.
“Permit these travelers to bathe, and provide clean clothing,” the Sybil said. “We will have a light meal later.”
“In the dining hall?” the satyr inquired.
“Yes. No, in my rooms.”
“Very good.” It curtsied with its front legs, turned to us. “This way, please.”
We followed it down several ﬂights of stone stairs. I was counting, and we should have been below ground long since, but through the windows I could still see the landscape and the sunlight. I caught Sesounis’ eye. She was registering it too. Mara was watching the satyr. When she saw me looking her way, she caught my eye. “Another projection?”
“I don’t think so.”
On the next landing we passed another satyr on its way up. It gave us that same surprised stare, then seemed to realize it was being impolite and hurried off.
“Cute,” Mara said.
“I don’t get this,” Sesounis muttered.
“Don’t worry, neither do I,” I said, trying to see as many different directions at the same time as I could. “The fact that I may have also shared some experiences with the Sybil, which I have yet to conclusively prove, doesn’t give me any insight into any of this.”
Eventually we stopped in what was obviously a bathroom for several people at the same time, except that the tubs were shorter and deeper than usual. Three of them had bath water already drawn. It seemed clear that they were made for the satyrs rather than the Sybil. We didn’t care, though. The water was steamy hot and the towels were soft and clean. Gratefully, we stripped off our grubby pack clothing and sank into the soothing water.
“Shit, this is good,” Mara said, ducking her head under, then throwing it back and letting the water stream from her hair over her face. Sesounis didn’t put her hair up as she usually did, but got immediately into the tub with a great exhalation of pleasure and sank from sight.
After a minute or two, I noticed that she hadn’t surfaced. I began to get worried. After another minute or so, I jumped out of my tub and ran to hers. She was down at the bottom, on her back, a blissful expression on her face. Frantically, I plunged in with both arms, grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to the surface.
She looked at me, startled, her long hair ﬂoating about her like black seaweed. “What’s wrong?” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Am I okay? What about you? Are you okay? Were you passing out?”
“The water, under the water! You were down for so long, I was afraid that...”
“Oh. Oh! I understand.” She placed both hands on my forearms, gently. “You’re concerned because I didn’t come up for air.” She giggled with relief, hugged me. “I’d forgotten that we’ve never been in water together.” She thought for a moment, trying to phrase something. “I’m...different in water. My body does things that yours doesn’t. When I submerge, I don’t need air for a long time. By your reckoning, anyway. But it’s perfectly normal.”
I was relieved, but still full of startle juices and concern. “How does that work? Why is it? Why are you...”
She touched my lips with a ﬁnger. “It’s perfectly okay. We haven’t talked much about Kerla, about my home. I’m from the th’allara-m’le’Sta. I guess you could translate that as Sea People. For thousands of years, we lived in the sea, made our homes, gave birth, buried our dead in the sea. Up to now, only a few of us have made our homes on the land. In Kerla, I’m considered something of a rebel, an outcast, because I’ve chosen to live k’allara, to live ’dry’.” She looked off into the distance for a moment. “But that’s what needed to be done.”
“For you? For...Kerla?”
“For us. For the Five. For the ’Sta. For Ktahmet.”
We looked at each other. Great Mother, I admired this woman. If I had known what she knew from the beginning, would I have done as she had?
“I understand a little more,” I said. On sudden impulse I brushed her lips with mine. Then I got back in my tub and relaxed into the hot water. Sesounis sank from sight again.
That quick kiss had been a mistake. It had been electric, preternaturally vital, and now my brain was boiling with it. Too much unresolved history, I realized. Too many unconscious shared experiences. Too much common context in the past, and not enough in the present.
And the future?
Oh shit, or oh Blue Mother, I told myself. I have no fucking idea what I'm doing. Only time will unfold this thing.
There seemed to be no hurry whatsoever. A satyr—I had no way of knowing if it was the same one—came in and picked up our clothes and gear. Mara made a move to arise and kill, and I motioned her to wait. I wanted to see what it did when it came to our athames. Sure enough, it carefully avoided touching any of them, but it did take the cords and sheaths. Mara watched me, waiting.
“I’m sure it’s okay,” I said. “If they wanted to harm us, they’ve had plenty of opportunity.”
She sat back down, slowly. In a few minutes a satyr came in with three folded white garments, placed them carefully next to our athames, and left.
Eventually we’d had enough, even of such an incredible luxury, and we climbed out. The towels were soft and luxurious. Curious, I inspected mine, then chuckled. In one corner was embroidered “Plaza”.
The garments proved to be silk jumpsuits with snap fasteners. We climbed into them gratefully. There were leather sandals, too. Everything seemed to fit. No sooner were we dressed than the satyr came back.
“Please follow me,” it said, in that tiny voice.
We started back up the stairs. Sesounis caught up with me. “How many of these folks do you suppose there are here?” she said softly, keeping her face front.
“I haven’t been able to ﬁgure it out,” I said, also under my breath. “It could be like the joke about the body lice—either a million of ’em, or one on a motorcycle.”
Many ﬂights later, while the angle of view from the windows to the ground didn’t seem to change much, we emerged in a high-ceilinged, comfortably furnished room, with hangings on the walls and a dining table set for four, complete down to ﬁne napery. The satyr seated us, whereupon the Sybil appeared and took her seat.
“Afternoon, ladies,” she said.
Immediately three satyrs came in, lighting the tapers and serving soup from a covered tureen. I took my napkin from the wine glass (it was folded in the shape of a swan) and placed it in my lap. Then, on impulse, I picked up the wine glass and examined it.
“Steuben?” I said.
She inclined her head. “Of course.”
“I should have guessed.”
The soup was an excellent Vichysoisse, chilled to perfection and served in an iced bowl. I had to dig back in my memory for the last time I’d tasted anything so good, which immediately led me to context problems. I was all too familiar with what the ’Sta were eating at this very moment. I didn’t know whether Sesounis or Mara would either recognize the soup or like it, but apparently they each had experienced something analogous; they were smiling with enjoyment.
The main course was braised fowl in a light orange glaze, with some small pasta-like thing and a tender, unidentiﬁable green vegetable. I was having trouble taking it in mentally, but no difﬁculty gastronomically. One of the satyrs offered wine. The bottle had no label, but the wine was light and pleasant.
They brought the salad afterwards, continental style. I didn’t recognize a single vegetable, but whatever they were, they were crisp as thin glass and amazingly ﬂavorful. The dressing had a slight, pungent overtone of mustard, not sweet at all.
When we’d done that, there was a slight pause, while we all wondered what to say. Then a satyr came in with four small dishes, each containing a dark brown sphere. I looked at mine, knowing immediately what it was but not daring to ﬁnd out for fear of being wrong. Sesounis was looking quizzically at hers; Mara’s eyes were bugging out. Aha, I thought—Now we separate the women from the girls.
Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I picked mine up, inhaled its aroma for a second, and took a tiny bite. I thought that I was going to burst into tears. It was an India Joze chocolate trufﬂe.
Judging from her face, Mara had transcended into some higher plane of existence. Sesounis was snifﬁng suspiciously at hers, not sure what to do. She looked at the Sybil. “Can you tell me what this is?”
“A chocolate trufﬂe.”
“A liquor extract of a plant. The ﬂavor is extraordinarily complex. Won’t you try it?”
Sesounis picked it up delicately, and sniffed suspiciously again. She took a tiny bite, took the bite out of her mouth with two ﬁngers, and looked thoughtful. Finally she said, “I don’t think that I can eat this.”
“You mean that you don’t like it?”
“No. Yes. No, not exactly. It isn’t just that I don’t recognize the ﬂavor; I don’t think that my body understands it.”
“Don’t be concerned; we have other sweets.”
“Thank you, but that’s unnecessary.”
I was struck to the core. It was a trivial event, but for all its triviality it brought home, in an immediate, palpable way, how alien Sesounis really was. It was one thing to know it with the intellect. After all, we look alike, act alike, feel alike, therefore are alike. But something this simple drove home at heart-level that Sesounis truly was Kerlan, responsive to the lifeways of a culture whose hopes and fears and joys and sorrows were totally unknown to me. It shook me down to my boots.
And then it passed, in the way of revelation, leaving me slightly more textured.
“Mara, would you like this?” Sesounis said, holding out the trufﬂe.
“Does Howdy Doody have wooden balls?”
“I mean, of course I’d like it.” She glanced at me. “That’s the expression, isn’t it? It means ’of course’?
I nodded. The Sybil grinned. Sesounis passed the trufﬂe over. Mara looked at it for a long second, then looked at me. “Split it?”
“That’s all right, go ahead.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
She made it last, which did, after all, strain my self-control. Although the Great Mom knows why I was exerting self-control anyway. When she was ﬁnished, the Sybil said, “Let’s adjourn to my ofﬁce.”
We rose, and she led the way up another ﬂight of stairs to the room with the desk, except that the three ofﬁce chairs had been replaced with four softer ones. We’d barely sat down when another satyr came in with coffee and liqueurs. The aroma filled the room instantly, complex and dark and delicious. And also totally bizarre -- where in hell was she getting this stuff?
The Sybil lifted the silver coffeepot and filled our cups, raising her eyebrow at Sesounis and pouring only a taste in her cup.
The cream was real, and thick enough to stand a spoon in. Sesounis sniffed delicately at her coffee and put it down, whereupon the satyr took it away. She picked up her liqueur glass instead, and poured some cream into it. She saw me watching, and smiled.
“Now, this is familiar,” she said. She commenced eating the cream with her spoon, acquiring the most wonderful, little-girl expression of pleasure as she did so.
The Sybil chose an unmarked crystal decanter. “You’ll most probably like this,” she said, ﬁlling my glass.
Interested, I sniffed. Then tasted. Then must have looked thoroughly boggled. “Is that—”
“Chateau d’Yquem. 1961, I believe. Not a dessert liqueur, really, but something that I thought you might appreciate.”
“Appreciate? Are you kidding? I mean, yeah, you’re right, I certainly do.” I certainly did. A loft on the west side. They had a whole case of the fragrant stuff, an incredible luxury. Looked up from a long-stemmed glass of golden liquid to meet the inquisitive gaze of a tall, thin woman with long black hair caught back in a wooden clasp. I shook my head, hard enough to make white speckles dance at the edges of my vision. No cross-contextual crap right now, thank you very much.
“Excellent," the Sybil said. Then my judgment has been rewarded.”
We sat quietly and companionably until we had ﬁnished our drinks and the satyr had cleared the cups and tray. Then the Sybil stretched, and her face changed.
“Okay, hit it,” she said, leaning forward.
Mara, Sesounis and I looked brieﬂy at each other. Sesounis said, “You really like your isolation, don’t you?”
“You bet your Krekkan boots I do.”
“You know, I’ve never been near the tower before, had no idea of the life you lead. How did you get it all together like this?”
The Sybil grinned wryly. “You might say it came with the job. Whoever started out in this gig set it up. I merely inherited it. Not that I haven’t kept it up, mind you, and even improved upon it where it seemed useful to do so. But it’s not my creation. I’m busy with other things.”
“I’m not surprised that you want to be alone,” Mara said, “considering how you live your life.”
The Sybil frowned. “Don’t misunderstand. It wouldn’t matter if none of this were here, if there were nothing in Sybil Hyatt except me and the Un—-me and my work. I’d still want my isolation. It happens to be who I am. It also, incidentally, happens to be necessary for the work.”
“The satyrs came with the show too?” I said.
“They did, although in a slightly different form. I don’t really have much time for zoic construction any more. And, believe me, I don’t set this kind of a spread every day. But then, I never...never...have guests.”
She and I exchanged a long, impenetrable look. “That’s the problem with this setup,” she said, after a minute. “Too many people know too many other people, but don’t really know them or how they know them. Or even if they know them.”
“Just plain ol’ kindred spirits,” I said softly.
“Right, that’s what it is." She tossed her head. "Anyway. One day we should clear this whole metric and establish some sort of internal consistency. Ktahmet is the only place I’ve ever heard of where so many alternate consciousness modes and contexts and syntaces mash together. That’s the right technical term for it, too— mash.”
Sesounis narrowed her eyes. “True, but for now, we have a job to do, and we’re going to have to get on with it. We’re here, we’re inside your defenses, we need your help.”
“Where you stand in relation to my defenses is an open question. At the moment let’s just leave it that I’ve decided you are guests. Why do you deserve my help?”
Sesounis nodded at me.
An unreadable expression passed across the Sybil’s face. “Um, yes. Okay. You and I can talk later. For now, I do offer my help. What, speciﬁcally, are we going to be doing?”
“Two things,” Mara said. “The ﬁrst is a request on behalf of Sesounis, Khashti, myself, and several others. We need the Soul Pool.”
The Sybil raised her eyebrows. “The Soul Pool? For what purpose?”
“The ﬁve of us need our history back.”
“Ah, I see. I should have ﬁgured that out by myself. You also have a prior context?”
“So we believe.”
“And you can’t get at some of the material. Something you’ve done together before, that you need back?”
“Is it going to be dangerous to this metric?”
“Dangerous to—-how in hell could we do that?”
The Sybil leaned back, put her hands behind her head. “Your friend here almost did it this morning. Not that you could create a major disruption that way, although you could cause plenty of havoc on a local scale. But you must understand how Ktahmet is constructed. Its metric is artiﬁcial. It’s stable, as loci of consensus go, but it has no...well, roots, if you will, into the universe. You might think of it as a house built on an unstable hillside. Add too much water, or shake things up a bit, and you could slide down into...” She shrugged her shoulders.
Sesounis narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “Go on,” I said.
The Sybil sighed. “Trouble is, we don’t really have the time to do this properly, or to work up through the math. If we could do that, then we could really communicate about this stuff. But in the meantime, which may be for all time, I’ll stick to analogy. Normal metrical loci maintain themselves like any stable but dynamic physical system. They tend to restore necessary balances. That can mean anything from the way a population curve follows an available food curve to stuff like conservation of conceptual matrices.
“But consensual loci have no inherent stability. They have to be maintained. Somebody has to consciously, continually, correct the balances in order to keep the locus in place and intact. For relatively small loci that’s simple enough. But here, since the K’a and then the Five and then Masorlin and then damn near everybody else in the sidereal universe has shown up, that job has gotten to be a humdinger. So when somebody tells me that they may be going to shake things up a bit, I become personally concerned.”
I said, “I think I get it. It’s like going to the captain and telling her you may be moving all the cargo over to one side of the ship.”
She nodded, smiling grimly. “Good analogy.”
“Well,” Sesounis said, “I certainly hope we’re not going to shake anything up like that. We are, though, definitely going to shake something up. And you know what it is.”
The Sybil nodded. “Yes, I do. And there’s nothing wrong with that idea. Shit, I hate the bastard too.” She leaned forward, looked at each of us. “But I need to caution you that it may not be as simple or clear cut as you like to believe. Masorlin himself, or what he stands for, may be bound up in this place in ways that you can’t foresee.”
“In what ways do you mean?” I said.
“Shit, Khashti, I’m not omniscient. I just get hunches. Intuitions, if you will. But I’ve been around long enough to have learned to pay attention to them.”
“Yeah, but, jeez, anything you know could make a critical difference...”
An expression ﬂickered across her face, was gone before I could decipher it. She sat for a few moments, lost in thought.
“Concepts,” she said ﬁnally. “Pay attention to concepts.”
“That’s the best you can do?”
“I’m not good at talking. I just do stuff. You guys are the talkers.” She leaned back, regarded us sourly. “Spells, chants, subconscious symbology, Higher Syntax. You are the holistic practitioners of the universe." She shrugged. "I’m an allopath. I work with physical stuff that obeys physical logic, like that projector pack back at the bridge.” She shifted her position, sighed. “You know, that end of the ﬁeld that maintains the projection isn’t anchored down. You could have produced a metrical hernia for sure with what you were doing.”
“That’s okay, I’ve got a metrical truss in my pack.”
She tossed her head. “Okay, enough of this. I acknowledge and grant your ﬁrst wish. You have the use of the Soul Pool. Which means, of course, that you also have the use of me. Check with my appointment secretary on the way out. By the way, you can stop waiting until I’m looking away to stare at my forehead; I don’t mind.”
“Er...excuse my impoliteness.”
“Perfectly understandable. How many women do you encounter in a day who have a large green jewel set into their foreheads? I don’t mind your looking, as long as you don’t make a habit of it.”
“Don’t bother, Khashti,” Sesounis said. “It’s not the actual Soul Pool anyway.”
“A dummy?” I said. “In case of jewel thieves?”
The Sybil grinned. “Hah. No jewel thief could get close. Besides which, they’d lose their chance at the Un—-at my favor. No, I only wear the Soul Pool for actual work. Then I don’t have to worry every second about controlling it.”
“Ah. A potent talisman,” I said.
“You’ll ﬁnd out.”
Mara sat forward. “Okay, we’ve got that one down. Then there’s the next thing.”
“Wait a minute,” Sesounis said mildly, “we do need a date, and it needs to be as soon as possible.”
“I know that,” the Sybil said. “I was only pulling your leg. We’ll get right on it.”
Sesounis nodded. “Okay, then we can indeed get right on to the next thing.” She nodded to Mara. “Take it.”
Mara stood up. She glanced at each of us, wet her lips. I could see that, for the ﬁrst time since I’d known her, she was very nervous. She said to the Sybil, “Uh...could you and I go into the other room?”
The Sybil raised her eyebrows a triﬂe, then took on a patient, knowing, almost tired expression. “Certainly.”
“Mara,” Sesounis said softly, “you are among friends.”
Mara proceeded to look more and more like a little kid. She was practically scufﬁng one sandal on top of the other. My mind raced, trying to decipher what was happening.
Sesounis looked at her, then at the Sybil. “Mara, sei jennara nui b’selist’u m’herit...thy being is honored by thy sisters. Don’t forget it.”
Mara glanced gratefully at Sesounis. Then something in her clicked, and the warrior came back. And believe me, when Mara is being a warrior, you know it; she practically shines in the dark.
She drew herself up, took a deep breath. Then, to my absolute astonishment, she kneeled in front of the Sybil, back straight, and bowed her head.
“Sydis, meli K’a-Lira, d’meli nu Khashti’Sta, d’meli nu Syn’a’Sta, sei merran v’li kernuti deras, selan’ta vorr do’nun Merrantu vorren.” She spoke in a hushed, reverent tone. I recognized the formal Leria but missed a couple of critical words. What she seemed to be doing, in a very ritualistic way, was asking for the Sybil’s permission for something. “Sybil, Guardian-mother of the K’a-Lira” , and so forth, naming all the demes, “and guardian-mother of all who ﬁght beneath thy kernuti, grant us entrance into thy merrantu.”
I looked over at Sesounis. She was sitting straight up, eyes front, face opaque. I realized that I had stumbled into some critical and highly formal interchange, so I shut up and just watched.
The Sybil leaned forward, features composed and severe, and placed her open hand on Mara’s head. “Selana do’nun Merrantu vorr’, sei ala Merrantu dei K’a-Lira serran, dei v’Khashti’Sta serran, dei v’Syn’a’Sta serranta, merrant’aderas li kernuti.” The same thing in reverse—” I grant entrance to” and name all the demes, “plus all those who call upon my kernuti, to the realm of Merrantu.” A very formal statement—she was using ’li’ in the original sense of “calling out” or “naming the name”.
Mara rose slowly, her face a ritual mask. “M’alana, Sydis meli nei, ke senyo.”
“Ke senyo’i”, the Sybil said. Mara bowed her head, eyes closed.
The Sybil stirred, stood up briskly. “Okay, enough of that,” she said, collecting some papers from the desk. “Let’s get ready to roll.”
Mara snapped back to being Mara. Sesounis and I also stood up. The Sybil clapped her hands, and three satyrs came in carrying our clothes and packs. I checked mine out. Not only was the pack now sparkling clean and the worn places carefully reinforced, but my athame’s sheath was polished to a soft gleam, and the nicks and scratches had been ﬁlled and buffed. My clothes smelled wonderfully fresh.
The sybil noticed me snifﬁng delightedly at them. “Soft water,” she said.
I glanced out the window. “In this geosyncline?”
“I should have known. Always the mad scientist.”
We skinned out of the jumpsuits and climbed into our trail gear. So, to my surprise, did the Sybil. “Aren’t you going to take the easy way out?” I asked.
“Can’t,” she grunted. “No exceptions for Sybils. Nobody transits in here, not even me.”
“But you made exceptions for cooking and hot water.”
“Microwave. No combustion. Sometimes it pays to be a mad scientist.”
She took a pack from behind the desk, shouldered into it. “Watch the store,” she said to one of the satyrs.
The satyr did its little curtsy. The Sybil walked to a door in the wall and pushed at it. It didn’t move. “Damn,” she said under her breath. She pushed some more, rattled the knob, and ﬁnally gave it a good, solid kick. With a screech of protest, it popped open, revealing the path on which we’d arrived and the bell rope with the “RNIG ALSO” sign.
I turned and looked out the opposite window. As far as that side of things was concerned, we were still several ﬂoors in the air. Oh well, I thought, context isn’t everything.
* * *