Dominion, p.29
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       Dominion, p.29

           John Connolly
 

  Increasingly, those who actively ran the Marque under Syrene accepted her, and more and more her attendance at official meetings went unquestioned. Her quiet figure was a shadow in the background at many a private rendezvous too, although if anyone cared to actually look properly, and notice her, chances are they’d have been surprised at her presence, for it was not only on Syrene that Ani was slowly, carefully working her clouding skills.

  Weeks became months, months slipped into a year, and then another, and Cocile found that she was becoming as devoted to Ani as she was to the Archmage. She confided in her, she told her things that surprised even herself as they slipped from her mouth.

  And she was not alone in this.

  • • •

  However, Ani’s path to fulfillment was marred by what Syl had told her before she fled the palace of Erebos, by what she’d said of the First Five, and a creature that hid in the Marque, feeding off them; an alien entity, one of the Others, but more powerful than any they had glimpsed on Earth.

  “All that is wrong with the Empire has its roots in the Marque,” Syl had contended, begging her friend to understand, and every day this statement echoed in Ani’s head.

  What was hidden in the Marque? Ani firmly believed that the Sisterhood had been formed with a deeply noble purpose, but if what Syl said was true, then the Nairene mission had been compromised.

  As she watched Syrene slip away unaccompanied into the private Second Realm, week in, week out, and Ani became desperate to know the truth—or perhaps the lie—of it. That was why she clouded, and why she eventually followed the unsuspecting Syrene deep into the Marque.

  That was how she discovered that Syl had not lied.

  • • •

  What Ani saw changed her view of the Sisterhood. It was as though everything that had been in soft focus was now rendered sharp and vivid. The Sisterhood was not at fault. No, Syrene, and those like her, were the true infection.

  The First Five haunted her dreams. Ezil had been the Marque’s original and greatest psychic, and Ani felt sure that whatever light still flickered within the ancient, tormented Mage reached out and touched her as she slept, urging her to take action, wheedling, needling, begging, until nightmares shook Ani awake, leaving her quaking and praying for dawn.

  In time she stopped sleeping, and dark pools shadowed her eyes. Even Syrene noticed and asked if Ani was feeling unwell. Lista was appointed to care for her personally, and Ani wept wordlessly on the older girl’s shoulder, unable to reveal the source of her grief. Finally she collapsed with exhaustion and was hospitalized. There, in the undisturbed quiet, she came to accept that she would have no peace again unless she took action. She vaguely recalled something Syl had said back on Earth, quoting a long-dead human writer: all that it took for evil to triumph was for the good to stand by and do nothing.

  “I saw them, Syl,” she whispered through the window of her sickroom late that night, addressing the blackness beyond that had swallowed her old playmate. “I saw the First Five”—she watched how the reflection of her face distorted in revulsion—“and they were attached to that creature by tendrils, by cords of flesh and blood. They should have died long before, but that monster, the One, it keeps them alive, feeding off them. It is just as you told me.”

  The memory of Syl burned brighter than ever now that Ani knew her friend had been telling the truth. She wished she could speak to her again; she wished it more than anything.

  “I’m sorry I chose not to believe you,” Ani added. “I just wanted you to be wrong. I wanted it to be a lie.”

  She swallowed hard, determined not to cry, not again.

  “So you know what I’m going to do, Syl?” said Ani. She waited, and perhaps the universe held its breath.

  “I’m going to take control.”

  CHAPTER 52

  Ani clouded.

  She knew herself to be one of the last truly proficient psychics in the Marque, for the Gifted training program was no more, and none of the latest intakes of Novices showed much promise anyway. Syrene had a certain psychic ability, this was true, but Ani was so familiar to her, and such a part of her existence, that any defenses Syrene might have put up against her had long since dissipated. As far as she was concerned, Ani was hers to dominate.

  Only Thona, the former tutor to the Gifted, posed a significant threat, though Ani suspected she was not half as powerful as she liked to think. Meanwhile, the old clairvoyant witch Oriel was long dead, thanks to Syl, and the smattering of older Gifted Half-Sisters—now full Sisters themselves—had been dispersed throughout the Marque, their relatively minor talents left to fade through neglect, like the promise of student musicians who cease to practice regularly. Few remained who could stand against her.

  So Ani began planning her coup. It took patience, and discipline, and all the time she heard the voice of Ezil, real or imagined, calling to her, encouraging her, crying for her to hurry. She harnessed her power, storing it, saving it, until the night that she went to Syrene’s chambers, and, as the Archmage slept, put her hands to her head, flooding her consciousness, clouding her to such a degree that Syrene’s own identity was lost for a time. All that was left was a shell, a mouthpiece, and from it emerged the words that Ani wished it to speak. Seclusion. Isolation.

  Successor.

  • • •

  Then, at last, when the deed was done, and the news of Ani Cienda’s elevation was still being absorbed by the Sisterhood, the new Archmage led the old into the recesses of the Marque, and freed the First Five from their torment: first Atis, then Loneil, then Ineh, and finally Tola, all the while keeping a watch on the creature that rested in a web of tendrils above them.

  To her relief, the One had not reacted, at least not at first. It did not move, but simply waited, watching from its lair. Even then, Ani thought, it knew: it had felt her inside Syrene’s head, and understood that this Archmage’s time was passing, and another was about to take her place. A new deal was about to be struck.

  Perhaps the One thought it a blessing, for the old females beneath it were stinking and shriveled within the dry sacks of their own skin, and three of them had slumped into death as soon as they were disconnected from their life support, the red tendrils and fleshy cables emerging from their skulls wilting and decaying as the Sisters slipped away one by one.

  Tola, however, had not gone immediately. Briefly, the old Sister’s white-filmed eyes had filled with fluid—tears; it could only be tears—and the milkiness was washed away. She saw Ani then, and the faintest of smiles played on her lips. She raised her right hand as if in blessing, and then she too died, the connective cords writhing from her head to lie spent and useless on the floor.

  If she had ever had any doubts, at that moment Ani knew that she had done the right thing. Whatever knowledge the Others possessed had not been worth the sacrifice that the First Five had made to access it. The Sisterhood had been wise and knowledgeable in its own right once, before the Others had come. It could be so again. All that remained now was to release Ezil, the eldest. Buoyed by success, Ani reached out and pulled a fistful of life-supporting wires from Ezil’s chest.

  The screech that came from above her was like no sound she had ever heard before. Whatever the One had been anticipating when the connection with Ezil was broken, it was not this. Ani looked up in horror, pinwheeling her arms as she stumbling backward over the cords and out of the way, for numerous sucking tentacles shot from the One’s torso and grappled with the air, seeking new life. They wrapped desperately around Ezil again, boring into her skull and face and neck, greedy for her life force, until she was obscured from the shoulders upward. The creature’s black eyes found Ani and held her fast, glittering with ancient malevolence, demanding that the deal be done.

  For a moment, Ani considered letting it die. If it perished, would the remaining Others die with it? She couldn’t be sure, but she feared they would not. And how might they react to the death of their originator? She had a terrible vision of i
nfected Illyri, overcome by the parasites they carried inside them, spewing spores into the faces of the innocent, infesting an entire society, invading Avila Minor, ripping apart the Sisterhood. She could not take that chance.

  And that was when she gave Syrene to the One.

  • • •

  I showed her some mercy, Ani thought as she regarded the dreadful figure of the lost Syrene through the glass. She had clouded the Archmage’s brain so much that Syrene barely recognized her own Marque as she was helped by Ani into its depths. It was only at the end, when Ani began suiting up, and Syrene’s surroundings became familiar to her again, that she started to panic, but Ani had simply clouded her mind a little more, like an anesthetist increasing the flow of gas, and the Red Witch grew calmer. As Ani led her forward, the One cast aside the corpse of Ezil, its suckers curling away in something like disgust before unraveling again and fixing on Syrene. Immediately, they wrapped themselves around her head, pounding at her scalp, cracking the shell around her brain.

  As Syrene took Ezil’s place, the Other in her head reacted to the presence of its sire, and reached for it. Filaments and coils emerged from her ears, and forced themselves through the bones of her skull, shattering the pan and exposing the brain.

  Oh God, the blood . . .

  In turn, the One stretched to be reunited with its offspring, and within seconds Syrene’s eyes had rolled up in her head as the three organisms—Illyri, Other, One—became a single symbiote.

  It had, Ani supposed afterward, represented a good bargain for the One. Ezil and the other four Sisters were almost entirely used up; they had little life left for the One to suck from them. Syrene might have been only one Illyri, but she was strong, and easily worth five old husks.

  I gave her to that monster, Ani thought. I condemned her to a life of pain.

  And Ani wondered if she and the former Archmage were so different after all.

  CHAPTER 53

  Ani stared mesmerized through the glass, watching the One embrace its latest prey, just as it had Syrene so many months before, a lifetime ago.

  Priety finally stopped struggling. Her eyes had filmed with white, and her face was crusted with blood and tears. Had there been anyone to bear witness, Ani might have found herself accused of unforgivable cruelty for what she had done to Priety; and, in truth, the Archmage did feel a certain amount of guilt, although not enough to cripple her. But there had been purpose to Ani’s actions: Priety’s fresh energy and life force would sate the One, at least for a time. It would gorge itself upon her vitality. Already Ani could see its body pumping, absorbing Priety’s essence. She had watched the same process occur with Syrene, and the One had been sluggish to the point of dormancy for days after. It had given her time to remove the bodies of the First Five, and to incinerate each of them in the furnace used by the medical droids to burn the contaminated clothing and medical supplies of the old Nairenes.

  Though it was exhausting work, all this she did alone. She had understood from Syrene that only Oriel had known the truth about the One and the First Five, and Oriel was dead, killed by Syl Hellais. It was better, thought Ani, that the One should remain a secret. Secrets had power.

  But the One kept its own secrets too. Since it was in contact with all of the Others, it could theoretically have communicated to them the truth about Syrene’s fate, and brought the force of the Others and their Illyri hosts down on Ani. It had not. Ani could only conclude that, for now, the One was prepared to bide its time, for it had all the time that there was, and all there ever would be. The One was so ancient that its conception of the epochs was entirely different from that of the Illyri or any other race. For it, years were like seconds, and Ani had barely been Archmage for any time at all.

  Ani waited. Gradually, the One’s movements slowed, and it sagged in its web and curled its legs in upon itself. Only then did she reenter the chamber.

  • • •

  “Syrene.”

  Ani spoke the former Archmage’s name, and at the same time inserted the needle into Syrene’s left forearm, dosing her with an ephedrone derivative—a potent monoamine alkaloid stimulant. Instantly Syrene’s back arched, and her mouth opened wide. Her eyes remained white, but they moved in their sockets as Syl repeated her name.

  “Aaaaannnni,” rasped the Archmage, “you traitor.”

  At least, thought Ani, all this time under the control of the One hadn’t changed Syrene much.

  “Does it hurt a lot?” asked Ani.

  “Yesssss.”

  “I can bring it to an end.”

  A pause.

  “Do it.”

  Another pause.

  “Please.”

  “First, tell me about the One.”

  “What is the One?”

  “The creature that holds you.”

  “It wants to breed.”

  “What else?”

  “To feed. And . . .”

  “Go on.”

  “It wants Syl Hellais.”

  Ani was taken aback, but of course the One would know about Syl, for it was inside Syrene’s brain; it knew everything that she did.

  “Syl Hellais is dead,” said Ani.

  “It does not believe this. It has heard . . . echoes of her.”

  Oh, thought Ani, if only that were true.

  “Why would it want her?” she asked.

  Above Syl’s head, the One stirred. She knew that she was taking a chance with the stimulant. Since Syrene was linked to the One, some of the effects of ephedrine would rub off on the creature. She did not have long.

  “Because she is powerful, and her power would become its power.”

  The web shook. The One’s legs began to uncurl. It was time to go, but Syrene had a last message for her.

  “This is not the One,” she said. “There is another . . . greater.”

  Ani backed away. The One was moving now. It turned to face Ani, and its black eyes seemed to bore into her. Only when she was safely through the airlock did Ani realize that she had been holding her breath.

  “Kill me!” cried Syrene, her sightless eyes searching for Ani. “You promised! Kill me!”

  And then the tendrils tightened around her brain, and she fell silent.

  PART XIII

  EARTH

  CHAPTER 54

  The Revenge, with the Marauder just behind it, picked up the three Illyri ships orbiting the earth shortly after it entered the solar system. Their home was so close now, and they still had hope. All might not yet be lost for their small blue planet.

  And if they were wrong?

  Well, then they would wage war.

  “What have we got, Alis?” asked Steven.

  “The largest is a transporter, but I’m not getting any details. I would suggest that, given the secret nature of its mission to Earth, it was never registered.”

  The screens gave them the dimensions of the transporter. It was much larger than any they had seen on Archaeon, which meant that the spores collected there had been taken elsewhere and then loaded onto this craft for delivery to Earth.

  “And the others?”

  “A destroyer, the Satia, and the Iria, a cruiser.”

  At least the Revenge’s systems could help them with these two, and Steven soon had details of their crew, weaponry, and defenses. He wasn’t concerned about the transporter. At best, its attack and defense capabilities would be minimal. Transporters weren’t designed for a fight. In fact, because of the Illyri’s presumed superiority to any other species in the universe, very few of its ships had, until recently, been battle-ready. Even destroyers, despite their name, were typically underequipped for a stand-up fight with another vessel of similar size. The civil war had changed that, and the escort convoy they’d encountered on the way to Krasis had clearly been retrofitted for battle. But only the more advanced Corps ships, such as those used to attack Melos Station and other Military targets at the start of the war, and of which the Revenge and Marauder were examples, were really fully fle
dged combat vessels.

  Unfortunately, the Satia was one of them too. Steven became worried as its specifications were revealed to him. It was worth half a dozen cruisers like his own. The Iria was less of a threat, but it was only a generation behind the Satia, and had obviously been designed by the Corps with one eye on the possibility of war with the Military, for it was a significant fighting vessel. They had one Cayth torpedo left, and after that they’d be relying on conventional weapons. The Satia would be the main target, but the Iria would have to be dealt with before they could get close to it. He wasn’t sure that using Alis as the public face of their approach would work on this occasion, not with the earth reduced to a secret breeding ground for the Others.

  They had some time to prepare, though. It would be days before they reached Earth, and even with the relays, it would take about two hours for any transmission from the orbiting craft to reach them. Steven handed over control of the Revenge to one of the newly acquired Brigade pilots, and, accompanied by Alis and Hague, went to his cabin to open a secure channel with Rizzo.

  • • •

  The first communication reached them exactly two hours and seven minutes later. It came from the Iria, and was bad news from the start. To begin with, it identified both the Revenge and the Marauder by their former names, the Gradus and the Ilfen, and demanded confirmation of mission from their respective captains, Waltere and Sulus. Neither of them was likely to be answering such calls anytime soon, Waltere having been scoured from the Gradus by Cayth technology, and Sulus being among the dead on Krasis. But it worried Steven that the Iria was seeking to communicate with them personally. It was possible that the waiting Illyri had somehow been informed of a possible problem with one or both of the approaching ships, and were now on the alert.

 
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