City of a Million Legends Wildside
First Lifewave Book 2
"The Tour leaves tomorrow," insisted Zref, pulling himself out of the groundcar in the underground parking lot of the Mautri temple. "We have to do this now."
Khelin jumped out of the back seat to grab Zref's arm and steady him even before Arshel--who didn't feel much better than Zref did--could move. To himself, Zref admitted that the physician had been right. The inoculation with Arshel's full venom had left him too weak to be doing this now. But they'd lost too much time while he'd been delirious. He leaned against the car, breathing from the oxygen mask Khelin held over his face while Arshel and Ley also emerged. Then he pushed the mask away. "Let's go."
The elevator ride up to the plaza surrounding the Mautri temple and the kyralizth made his knees buckle. They were surrounded now by offworld tourists here for the famous sundown ceremonies of Mautri. Both Arshel and Khelin were wearing their priest's robes while he was dressed in Interface blacks. He refused to show how weak he felt. Above, the sun cast long black shadows. They crossed the pavement and entered the Mautri school compound by walking through the tunnel-like free-standing arch, the door to the room without walls, which was decorated with high relief carvings out of history.
Off to their right, on a lower terrace, was the open air parking lot where locals and tourist buses parked, and the entrance to the underground trains. People of every species were pouring up the wide stairs, hurrying to get places around the kyralizth.
A pair of offworld humans passed them as they emerged from the arch, and the woman raked Zref with a glance, commenting to her companion, "Wonder what he's doing here?"
Khelin said, "Let's go this way," and bore left, toward the high walls surrounding the temple. The towers and turrets of the temple building jutted up above the walls, hulking shadows in the rapidly gathering dusk. Khelin led them into a fenced area next to the huge, formal temple gates from which the priests would come--the area reserved for the bhirhirn of priests and those who had left the temple.
Here, the press of the crowd let up, though the curious glances continued. They found places next to the rail facing the gate, but still in clear view of the kyralizth. The huge, flat-topped, stretched-out pyramid had its long "tail" end toward them from this vantage, and Zref could almost count the steps set into the sharp edge that led to the firepit at the top. Each of the other edges of the kite-shaped edifice was also set with steps. Everyone in the crowd, which now completely surrounded the pyramid, would have a good view.
Zref caught his breath, waving aside Khelin's offer of oxygen, and noting how Ley clutched the medic's case he carried against the chance Zref might collapse. He let Arshel lean on him reassuringly stroking her hand. She, too, had suffered a bad reaction to Khelin's venom, but it hadn't been unexpected. Saltwater and freshwater kren were just not compatible. But Zref had run a perilously high fever, a condition neither Arshel nor Khelin was experienced with.
The kren were not cold-blooded, like Terran reptiles. Their body-temperature regulating system only acted to keep their temperature above a certain level, not to keep it below a given temperature. And they didn't run fevers.
"Are you sure you can stand here the whole while?" asked Arshel.
"Yes," answered Zref. "It doesn't take long." But he leaned on the fence.
"I don't know if that's such a good idea," said Ley. "It's cold out here, and you've been sick, Zref!"
"But I've survived. If we're going to go there's so much to do! We have to arrange for the children . . ."
Ley said, "I've taken care of that." He named relatives who'd volunteered to surparent while they were gone.
"We can't go," said Arshel, pleadingly. "Has everyone forgotten, there's one more hatching?"
Ley caught her eye. "I'd stay for that hatching, Arshel, at risk of my life. But Khelin has decided to be on that cruise. He's going to molt soon. Do you think I'd let him go alone?" Ley as surparent to Khelin's children was responsible for seeing them through their childhood molts, and socializing them, but his bhirhir had to come first. Khelin had strayed out of earshot, searching the railed compound. Skanqwin, his first-hatched son by Arshel when Arshel had been bhirhir to Dennis Lakely and Khelin's student at Mautri, was now a yellow priest at Mautri, though young for the status. Not high enough in the ranks to climb the kyralizth with the other priests, he usually watched from here. But Zref saw none of the red or orange or yellow robes of the younger priests yet.
Arshel clutched Zref's arm, staring off toward the setting sun. "They'll readmit me, Zref. I know it. But will you miss Khelin and Ley too much?"
"Interfaces don't miss people," answered Zref, wishing his words could reflect his knowledge of her emotions better. "Look, here come the reds!"
Khelin and Ley were standing a short distance away, facing the postern door that opened into the railed compound. It opened, and a flood of red robes issued forth, followed by the orange and then the yellow in decreasing numbers. At last, Khelin darted forward to greet Skanqwin, a stalwart young male with a dusky complexion, halfway between saltwater and freshwater norms. He was short for a MorZdersh'n, but the whole family was proud of his accomplishments at Mautri and held great hopes for his siblings. Inzin Tshulushiem, Skanqwin's best friend, who had won the right to the orange robe, was not with him, and Zref concluded he must have been invited to climb, a singular honor.
Ley took one of Skanqwin's arms and Khelin the other, and hauled him over to the railing where Zref and Arshel waited. But as they arrived, Ley seemed to sense a reticence on the youngster's part to be handled in public by his surfather, and he withdraw the contact. Skanqwin bowed to Zref and Arshel, as if they were strangers, and said, "Our Chief Priest sends greetings and extends welcomes." Then to Arshel and Khelin, he added, "You're both invited to climb." Arshel tensed, and Zref knew she expected this was the first sign she would be readmitted. But then she said, "My bhirhir is not wholly well. I would stay beside him."
Zref, about to protest, was interrupted by Khelin, "Tell Jylyd they have just pledged, and are still weak." He overrode the bright congratulations that leaped to Skanqwin's eyes, saying, "Ley and I will stay beside them--and later beg permission to sit in on their seeking-with. We'd be honored if he would hear us."
Zref had known they'd go to a white priest to ask for Arshel's admission, but he'd no idea the Chief Priest himself might honor them. Skanqwin bowed again. "I must hurry." He left, signaling his delight in their pledge with a cheerful glance.
When the boy had gone, Ley asked, "Do you think Jylyd really will hear us?"
"He was a red with me," answered Khelin. "We've been friends. He knows I wouldn't ask lightly."
A hush was falling over the assembly now, souvenir hawkers retiring to the parking lot as the sun touched the horizon. The city spread beneath the peak on which Mautri sat was sparkling with lights flung against black velvet, while the sky yet held light pierced only by a star or two. The world held its breath.
Slowly, the giant gates decorated with polished carvings creaked open. In the measure of time this took, Zref lived the many hundreds of times he and Sudeen had witnessed this. And it seemed his familiarity with it all went even deeper, lifetimes deeper. Familiarity made it a meaningless routine, and then turned that routine into burnished memories throbbing with enriched emotions. He blinked, and told himself it was only a data leak from the comnet setting up resonances in his mind.
The gates came to rest, and from the darkness emerged the white priests, four abreast, their ranks thin. Behind them came the purples, and then the dark blues like Khelin. The light blue was followed by the greens where Arshel could have taken her place. As the rainbow completed itself, the ranks split to encircle the kyralizth, each of the four climbing the stairs leading from one of the tour points toward the flattened apex.
It was timed beautifully, the whites arriving at the top of the kyralizth just as full dark blotted out perception of the spectrum of colors now edging the kyralizth. A breathless pause, and white fire erupted among the white priests at the top. Each priest now held a torch. The leading white priest from each of the four sides dipped a torch into the fire, and turned to light the torch of the one behind him. Very quickly then points of fire rippled down each edge of the kyralizth, outlining the structure in diamonds.
Gasps of amazement whispered among the tourists while the natives of Firestrip, humans and kren alike, held a reverential silence, knowing this was the most sacred mystery of the Mautri disciplines. Its true meaning was taught only to the whites. Zref had been told that it had no inherent meaning other than what each person could extract from it, but tonight, he felt deeper stirrings from which he flinched. An Interface didn't cry.
The fire hung in the air, and then as quickly as it had been kindled, darkness swept down the lengths of the kyralizth as each priest upended his torch and extinguished it. The entire area was plunged into the profound darkness of the mountain peaks. the city lights only the merest haze below. Silence ruled, then the rustle of movement as the priests descended in darkness. As they joined ranks to reenter the gates, the parking lot lights went on, dazzling all with their crass brightness, dispelling the mood.
Skanqwin was beside them, breathless from a hard run, and then standing still without panting. "Jylyd asked me to escort you all to his chamber."
They followed the younger priests back through the postern into a narrow, dim hallway carved from the stone of the thick walls. Through an inner door, up a winding stairway where troughs had been worn in the treads by generations of feet. Deep inside the temple where outsiders were never allowed, they ascended again and turned this way and that, passing many robed priests hurrying about their evening duties . Here the stone seemed even more ancient. Niches were carved in the passageway walls, some empty, some holding abstract carvings of surpassing beauty. In places a thin carpeting decorated the floors. Elsewhere hangings curtained archways. Always, abstract designs were executed in clear, clean rainbow colors.
Once, Skanqwin started down a side passage, and Khelin reached out to stop him. "Ley and Zref can't go that way." They took another turn then, and Zref sensed they were circling until they came to a long hallway hung with antique chandeliers that must have been worth a fortune, all lit now in bright welcome. The floor was covered, wall to wall, with a fluffy white carpet, and the walls were painted with purple textured shadows that made them nonexistent. At the end of the hall, a closed door gleamed metallic gold. Without stepping on the carpet, Skanqwin bowed again. "Jylyd expects you."
Khelin walked into the decorated hallway and turned to Skanqwin with a slight bow. "No doubt he does. Thank you."
Skanqwin hurried away, and Ley joined Khelin. "I can't help it. I'm so proud of that boy . . . !"
Khelin's face melted with affection. "With good reason. He was so nervous, I don't think he could remember which end of a bead to string--yet he only made one error, and he hardly raised prevenom at all."
As they reached the door, it swung open to reveal the white-washed and well heated room the Chief Priest Jylyd used. The windowless room was hung with faded antique tapestries. At one end, a fire filled a huge fireplace.
Jylyd, a kren almost too young to be Chief of the Mautri temple. gestured to them to be seated on the four plump cushions in a circle around him. He offered them all cups of hot soup and inquired solicitously of their health.
Once, when he was but a very small child, Zref had wanted to be admitted to the Mautri priesthood so much that he had sat in their outer courtyard day and night for nearly a week until his distraught parents had come to take him home. He'd kicked and screamed in protest, desperately sure was he that his future lay within these walls. But the kren who had been Chief Priest here then had told him his future lay elsewhere, for he had no psychic talent worth training.
He'd never been allowed to approach these private chambers until now, when he'd become an Interface, brain mutilated so that whatever slight talent he might once have possessed was forever gone. Or so it was reputed to be with Interfaces.
Jylyd and this room were familiar to all three of Zref's companions. That knowledge beat in on him until suddenly, he saw it all through their eyes, familiar.
"He's going to faint!"
Khelin had the oxygen mask ready, but Zref waved it away. "No. It's just that for a moment--"
Jylyd grinned in the civilized kren manner, lips closed over fangs, but his eyes unveiled of nictitating membranes. "You do remember. Tschfa'amin!"
The final word was a proper name, pronounced with the resonant click of the fangs before the dental fricative. The white priest held his eyes. The world bulged in and out around Zref. He felt the word/name pry at the Interface within him as if he were reading another Interface's private file--but he wasn't.
For an instant, he sat on the pile of cushions Jylyd now occupied. The tapestries about them were bright and new, the fire as warm as ever, and his body was fanged and scaled. And then it was gone. He slumped, panting, suppressing a whimper as an overlaid memory told him he was raising venom in simple shock/fear of a perfectly ordinary past life memory, which he shouldn't have because he was an Interface. "Now you know, Tschfa'amin, why my predecessor could not allow your young self even into this room. Your memories here run deep. But they are comfortable ones."
Zref shook his head. "No. Not for an Interface . . ."
". . . who's hardly over a pledge immunization!" defended Arshel.
Jylyd agreed. "The stresses in this room run deep. We are all seekers, and . . . Arshel's decision affects us all."
"I've made my decision," said Arshel. "I'm ready to try for the blue whenever you're ready to let me."
Finishing off his soup, Jylyd set his cup aside and gazed at her mournfully. "If only it were that simple. But, now that I've met Zref, I'm beginning to understand." His gaze rested on Zref for a moment, then he rose and went to a tall antique wood cabinet which stood against one wall. When he returned, he had cradled in the spread fingers of both webbed hands, a large, perfectly round, green sphere covered with a snatch of white gossamer.
He set this object on a blue pillow at the center of their circle, and drew aside the sheer cloth.
Khelin looked from the object to Zref and back again several times before he whispered, "Tschfa'amin." Then he turned to Jylyd pleading, "I never suspected! Jylyd, I never suspected!"
Jylyd seated himself answering the unspoken questions from the others. "Tschfa'amin was a white priest here, Chief Priest among us--nobody is sure how many times. The last time we knew him, he was called Tschfa'amin, and he left instructions that we must educate Arshel for him, but not admit him to the studies even if his young self asked." He raised his eyes to Khelin. "When he was Tschfa'amin, Khelin was one of his students.
"Tschfa'amin's last instruction," said Jylyd to Arshel, "was that when you sought readmission to complete your studies, you must be required to take all the vows and obligations of the Mautri, forsaking the Vlen traditions of your childhood. Are you ready to do even this now?"
"I think I did, a long time ago--when I first realized I couldn't live with Dennis."
"And do you believe that you cannot live with Zref?"
She considered him for a long time before answering, "No. Zref is the oddest bhirhir anyone ever had, but I think he will not be able to use me as Dennis did."
Zref was sad that she had not said she trusted him. But one couldn't lie to a Chief Priest when seeking admission to a degree level.
"If you have matured sufficiently to manage your bhirhir, and if you've found a bhirhir you can live with, why do you seek the blue?"
"And after that, the purple, and even the white," added Arshel boldly. "Because I discovered at great cost that I have a dangerous talent which I alone am responsible for."
Dennis had used her talent as an archeovisualizer to gain wealth, power and prestige, but Jylyd feigned not to understand. "Zref is better qualified to manage your small talent than you are."
"Perhaps, but my talent is for me to manage--or mismanage. If I am to grow, I must do this myself."
"Is there some other reason you mistrust Zref?"
"I don't mistrust Zref! Jylyd, I killed my bhirhir with hate venom! How could it be easy to take another bhirhir?"
"Look deeper, Arshel. We don't teach people to live balbhirhir because they dislike bhirhir. You can't learn to live balbhirhir if you aren't truly bhirhir."
To live balbhirhir was the goal of Mautri training, but only the whites lived without the assistance of a bhirhir even for molt. Most kren felt this was unnatural, but those who sought to train their psychic talents found it necessary.
Arshel was raising venom now, as a human woman might break down and cry under such pressure. She had just finished a long mating, and taken a difficult immunization. Her hormones must be in riot. Zref edged closer to her, offering the contact of one hand on her knee to steady her, while he stifled an urge to answer for her and shield her from the brunt of Jylyd's attack. He was startled at how hard it was to suppress his new bhirhir's instincts.
"Arshel, I'm not going to judge the quality of your current bhirhir. Our doors are open to you now, if you choose to enter them. But that is a decision you are going to make once you are sure you understand who Zref is, and what his business with you is."
Her gaze whipped around to rivet Zref with hot inquiry. The Guarantees which bound all Interfaces never to harm the comnet, never to waste its resources in useless queries, compelled him to say, "I doubt such information would be anywhere in the comnet." And his eyes went of their own accord to the green sphere before them.
"Yes," said Jylyd. "You recognize it."
"No," denied Zref mildly. But it felt restful.
Khelin offered, "I've only been called to it once--in this lifetime. Venerable--should I inform the aklal?" He began to rise, beckoning Ley with him, but Jylyd motioned him back to his seat.
"When I knew you would come this morning, I warned the aklal. Ley--" Jylyd considered. "Ley you may sit with us if you choose. You are part of this."
"I'd like to stay, Jylyd, Venerable."
"Please--I'm not so old as to be called Venerable yet!" As he said that, he leaned forward to place one naked finger upon the very top of the limpid green sphere. The sphere glowed red, and Jylyd took his finger away. "This was once part of the Wassly Crown. It was brought to us by Tschfa'amin in one of his previous visits, and it has been used for generations to focus the aklal on matters that concern us all."
Zref had always thought his mastery of colloquial kren languages adequate, but he had to glance aside and open quickly to consult a dictionary for the term, aklal. He found it designated a group-mind or spirit, the collective mentality that any group has in common. This meant little to him until Jylyd touched the top of the sphere once more, flooding the room with orange light.
"Tschfa'amin, if you refuse to permit it, we cannot do this for Arshel."
He knew to answer, "I won't open again until it's finished."
"Khelin?" invited Jylyd, tapping the sphere twice more to produce flares of yellow and bright emerald.
Khelin touched the sphere starring the interior with a blue light. Jylyd touched it once more, and the room dimmed to dark violet shadows. "Tschfa'amin--bring in the white priests for us. Please."
As he automatically reached forward to touch the sphere, Zref noted that Jylyd didn't ask, which would have compelled the Interface to respond. His fingers touched the sphere and the room exploded with brilliant white light. It thrilled through every nerve and brought tears of joy to Zref's eyes as if he'd never been an Interface.
Zref flew along stretched rainbows, whirling through time and space. Below him. mists cleared and he saw a city--no! The City. Clear blue sky, bright yellow sun, balmy sea breezes. And the City. Like a flat, spoked wheel the City's streets led him to the central hub.
And there, beside the sparkling rainbow encrusted Emperor's office building, lay the Emperor's Crown, a violet so bright it seemed like dark shadows.
The Crown, as all the Crowns located on the Habitation planets of the galaxy, appeared to be a stone circle, formed of four concentric circles of monoliths, some of which were joined by lintels. Within the circles, offset to one focus of an ellipse, stood a platform flanked by uprights and lintels. Leading into the Crown from the Emperor's Road, a long avenue bordered by monoliths ended in a slanted stone placed outside the circle and sighted on the line with the central platform.
Each pellucid stone seemed to be that same shade of violet just beyond the reach of the human eye. And Zref knew they were synthetics designed by Philosophical Engineers to have specific psychic properties. When a qualified Crown Operator entered a Crown, at the calculated time, he could send and receive messages to another attuned Crown across the galaxy. This Crown, the Emperor's Crown, was the one which had access to all the others. From here, a galaxy was ruled.
The City--not yet the source of a million legends--teemed with a dazzling mixture of species, though one form of erect biped predominated. Covered with bright feathers, crested but wingless, draped in feathered cloaks to match their plumage, these people filled the streets and offices.
Within the Emperor's office building, Zref joined a formal meeting of many species. He was feathered, robed in feathers only slightly less splendid than the Emperor's own, and he was perched on a writing bench before the Emperor as were a number of other dignitaries. He was there as the Empire's Philosophical Engineer, appointed for building the Crystal Crown to house Cheeal's Golden Sphere. Now he defended his latest scheme. "My students and I can forge the Selector to reject anyone who will misuse the power of Persuasion."
Cheeal rose from her perch, her feathers new and perfectly groomed. "Anyone involved in governing will misuse the power of Persuasion, though I wouldn't expect a Philosophical Engineer to understand that!" Behind her scorn, Zref sensed real fear. And he shared it.
But his then-self also rose. "The principles of the Universe with which we've engineered this Habitation of the galaxy do indeed show us the dangers of Persuasion. But only Persuaders can save our civilization from extinction. We're far too large, too diverse and too querulous to survive without the Persuaders to be the messengers of the Crown Emperor, bringing the legendary peace and prosperity of the City to every planet. It takes a Philosophical Engineer to understand the necessity, the danger and the precautions which make the Persuader Corps our salvation."
"But only the Material Artist," argued Cheeal, and now Zref recognized her as his bhirhir, "can perceive the way in which power over another destroys the one who wields it. Even in the hands of a good person, the power of Persuasion will become Coercion and then Compulsion. The Emperor of Crowns is elected for life by the Crown Operators from among their own to administrate the communications flow of this civilization. The Emperor of Crowns owns the Crowns--not the people. Our civilization is too great a work of art to allow this new power to destroy it in the time of the Fortieth Emperor." She looked to the feathered figure before them.
The Fortieth Emperor wavered toward Cheeal. Desperate and outraged, Zref raised one hand and filled the room with echoes of power such as only a Master Philosophical Engineer could raise: "I call into witness the Laws of the Universe, the collective mind of all mortals, the collected minds of all immortals, that I will prove to Cheeal that the Persuader power itself does not destroy the one who wields it."
The echoes subsided. The Emperor challenged Cheeal, "Match that, Material Artist!" And when she could not, Zref had won his argument--as well as an enemy.
For a moment, reality faded in around Zref. Once the Theaten archeovisualizer, Iebe Arai Then, had told him he'd been the Mazebuilder, but he hadn't believed it when he'd read it in the Lantern novel, Maze Builder, nor even when Arshel had told him her version. But now he'd been there, and he knew. All his mixed feelings for Arshel made sense. She was indeed the most important person in his universe. Another scene grabbed at him: a pall of doom suffused an aerial view of the City, the Crown and rectangular Maze at the center. But new buildings had been added to the skyline, and the outskirts stretched well past the old limits. New creatures moved about their business, the City filled with statues of them.
Zref stood in a new body, an erect biped, scaled and gilled, more at home in water than air. Of a long-lived species, he was nevertheless at the end of his span, having been Mazemaster for many years. From the door of the Maze Residence building, he could see the top floors of the Palace of the Emperor who had walked the Maze to become Persuader and now aspired to be Mazemaster as well as Crown Emperor.
The identity shimmered sickeningly. With a lurch he was sitting on a cushion in Jylyd's room, looking into the globe--which was swollen to ten times its size--watching a holographic projection of the story he almost remembered.
But this time, there was no aura of impending doom, no throb of evil barely leashed, as he looked at the jewel encrusted building which housed Ossminid, Emperor of the Stars. No Philosophical Engineer himself, but only an amateur dabbler in the Wisdom Arts, Ossminid had nevertheless discovered a new way to use the Persuader's talent, and today Ossminid was to become Healer of the Galaxy. The procession began precisely at noon, so he'd arrive at the Emperor's Crown when all the Crowns of the Empire were attuned to it. Glittering in their grandest finery, the twelve Crown Operators of the Emperor's Council preceded Ossminid. Dressed in rich but modest apparel, the twelve Maze Escorts, Zref included, followed the procession.
No! He'd never have lent his high office to such dangerous perversion. As Ossminid stepped between the two pillars which marked the entry to Emperor's Avenue, the bright violet of the pillars radiated purple shadow. The people of the City who had gathered in stillness to watch, all cheered as Ossminid's presence activated each pair of standing stones as he passed.
It was a kren voice crying out in the chamber of reality. Khelin.
"No!" Zref joined that objection. The scene before them was from the latest of the Lantern novels, Healing Day.
"No!" cried Jylyd simultaneously with Zref.
The swollen green globe throbbed once, as if fighting their collective will, and then subsided to its normal size. Arshel let out a wheezing sob, covering her eyes with the spread webbing of her fingers. On Khelin's other side, Ley suddenly crumpled forward in a dead faint.
To his credit, Khelin inspected Zref before turning to his bhirhir. But Zref was moving to Ley's side, knowing Arshel needed a moment of privacy. Jylyd reached Ley first, and spread the web between his thumb and forefinger in front of the human's nose. "He's breathing."
The white priest stretched the human out supine on the floor and then ran both spread hands over his body. His eyes closed for a moment of total concentration, and then he brightened and proclaimed, "He's unhurt. He's very strong."
A moment later, Ley came to, bewildered. Khelin helped Ley up and Jylyd poured hot brew for everyone. Zref went to Arshel who was still bent over, hugging herself. Moving slowly, mindful of her hair-trigger reflexes, he massaged the strike muscles at the back of her neck. Her venom sack was half full; embarrassing for a green.
"Whatever it was," he whispered, "it's over."
"No it's not," she said, shaking. "But I'll be all right." Her tone said, I don't need your help.
That stung. But Zref didn't recoil. He now knew why she didn't trust him. He had been a child blinded by his own brilliance when he'd thrown that oath at her. His current self shuddered in revulsion. No wonder it had taken him so long to accept his identity as Mazebuilder.
When they were all seated once again, Jylyd said, "Only one thing have I learned which is indisputable. You have an enemy powerful enough to reach into these very chambers, and into your own spawning pond. I shudder to think what will become of us all if you cannot vanquish this enemy." He eyed Arshel, "Or if you refuse to try. . . ."
"I had already decided to go on the Cruise," started Khelin as if to divert attention from Arshel. Ley elbowed him in the ribs. As Arshel's bhirhir, Zref should have spoken.
"The Cruise?" asked Jylyd, ignoring the bad manners.
When they'd filled him in, he said. "Yes, of course. She is behind it." Then he shook his head. "No, I must not offer advice. My vision can't be that clear."
"Venerable," said Arshel, "you gave me a decision to make. I've come to seek-with you for my answers. Help me."
No white could refuse that plea. Zref was surprised Jylyd even hesitated. Then the Chief Priest drew himself up. "We have all seen different things in the sphere, and learned different things of ourselves--until that last moment when something more powerful than anything I've ever touched before took over and brought us all into a warped fiction." Jylyd fixed Zref with unveiled eyes. "Your enemy; female in this lifetime; master now of a gigantic but unconstituted aklal. Her will has been manipulating your life, Zref Ortenau MorZdersh'n--as ancient and masterful as you are, she seems to have bested you. You made the Mazeheart--the Selector--and her goal is to wrest it or its secret from you. You found the City for her; you found the Maze. Now she bids you find the Mazeheart--and render it up to her."
Zref became aware of Arshel and Khelin staring at him through half-hooded eyes as if evaluating something treacherous. "No!" he said. "I'll destroy it first!"
"Remember the inscription," said Ley. "The Mazeheart Object can't be destroyed."
Zref's private file held a copy of the inscription he and Arshel had found at the entry to the Maze ruins. "The inscription says it can't be found in any ordinary way--but if it is found, it will likely destroy itself."
"But if it's used," said Arshel, "it'll destroy us as it did the First Lifewave."
"Arshel, here before the Venerable Jylyd, I swear my life is dedicated to preventing First Lifewave technology from invading and destroying our civilization."
"Your life is not your own to dedicate. It belongs to the Guild," countered Arshel.
The Guarantees rooted deep in Zref's mind made him hedge away from the secret Guild policy against archeological research. "The Guild gave me back much of my life because First Lifewave technology made me an Interface with access to a personal unconscious. The Guild backed my project to track down Balachandran and stop him. I'm alive only because you and I succeeded, and you're alive because the Guild allowed me to become the first Interface to take a bhirhir. The Guild is allowing me to decide whether to go or stay. I'll stay with you, if that's what you want, Arshel."
Jylyd added, "If you stay, Arshel, your enemy--for she is yours as she is Zref's--will have the chance to find the Object and use it before you can destroy it. If she gets it, with the power she has now, there may be no way to stop her." Haunted, Arshel gazed at the sphere, then turned to Zref. He knew she saw him as Mazebuilder.
He pleaded, "Give me a chance to show you what I am now--not what I was then."
"I warn you--if your destiny is to find the Object, you will not use my talent to do it."
Dennis, her first bhirhir, had used her badly. "I'll take nothing from you that is not freely offered."
"Then I'll go with you now, because Jylyd is right. I'm not free to enter Mautri again until this is finished."
Zref had never seen such unutterable grief. Her normally melodious voice was grinding, her eyes dead. He acknowledged within himself a victory--for everything in him had yearned to take up Onsham's challenge. But never had victory been so bitter. There's no such thing as victory over one's bhirhir. An Interface wouldn't be able to feel such pain.
End Chapter Two
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