The knife had pierced Dave's chest until the hilt pressed against his rib cage. He stared down at it, seeing it rise with the heaving of his lungs. Yet he was still alive!
Then the numbness of shock wore off and the pain nerves carried their messages to his brain. He still lived, but there was unholy agony where the blade lay. Coughing and choking on what must be his own blood, he scrabbled at the knife and ripped it out. Blood jetted from the gaping rent in his clothing. It gushed forth—and slowed; it frothed—trickled—and stopped entirely.
As he ripped his shirt back to look, the wound was closed already. But there was no easing of the pain that threatened to make him black out at any second.
He heard shouting, quarreling voices, but nothing made sense through the haze of his agony. He felt someone grab at him—more than one person—and they were dragging him willy-nilly across the ground. Something was clutched around his throat, almost choking him. He opened his eyes just as something clicked behind him.
The huge, translucent walls of the monstrous egg were all around him and the opened side was closing.
The pain began to abate. The bleeding had already stopped entirely and his lungs seemed to have cleared themselves of the blood and froth in them. Now with the ache of the wound ceasing, Dave could still feel the venom burning in his blood, and the constriction around his throat was still there, making it hard to breathe. He sat up, trying to free himself. The constriction came from an arm around his neck, but he couldn't see to whom it belonged, and there was no place to move aside in the corner of the egg.
From inside, the walls of the egg were transparent enough for him to see cloudy outlines of what lay beyond. He could see the ground sweeping away beneath them from all points. A man had run up and was standing beside the egg, beating at it. The man suddenly shot up like a fountain, growing huge; he towered over them, until he seemed miles high and the giant structures Dave could see were only the turned-up toes of the man's shoes. One of those shoes was lifting, as if the man meant to step on the egg.
They must be growing smaller again.
A voice said tightly: "We're small enough, Bork. Can you raise the wind for us now?"
"Hold on." Bork's voice seemed sure of itself.
The egg tilted and soared. Dave was thrown sidewise and had to fight for balance. He stared unbelievingly through the crystal shell. They rose like a Banshee jet. There was a shaggy, monstrous colossus in the distance, taller than the Himalayas—the man who had been beside them. Bork grunted. "Got it! We're all right now." He chanted something in a rapid undertone "All right, relax. That will teach them not to work resonance magic inside a protective ring; the egg knows how we could have got through otherwise. Lucky we were trying at the right time, though. The Satheri must be going crazy. Wait a minute, this tires the fingers."
The man called Bork halted the series of rapid passes he had been making, flexing his fingers with a grimace. The spinning egg began to drop at once, but he let out a long, keening cry, adding a slight flip of his other arm. Outside, something like a mist drew near and swirled around them. It looked huge to Dave, but must have been a small thing in fact. Now they began speeding along smoothly again. The thing was probably another sylph, strong enough to move them in their present reduced size.
Bork pointed his finger. "There's the roc!" He leaned closer to the wall of the tiny egg and shouted. The sylph changed direction, and began to bob about.
It drifted gently, while Bork pulled a few sticks with runes written on them toward him and made a hasty assembly of them. At once, there was a feeling of growing, and the sylph began to shrink away from them. Now they were falling swiftly, growing as they dropped. Dave felt his stomach twist, until he saw they were heading toward a huge bird that was cruising along under them, drawing closer. It looked like a cross between a condor and a hawk, but its wing span must have been over three hundred feet. It slipped under the egg, catching the falling object deftly on a cushion-like attachment between its wings, and then struck off briskly toward the east.
Bork snapped the side of the egg open and stepped out while the others followed. Dave tried to crawl out, but something held him back. It wasn't until Bork's big hand reached in to help him that he made it. When all were out, Bork tapped the egg-shaped object and caught it as it shrank. When it was small enough, he pocketed it.
Dave sat up again, examining himself, now that he had more room. His clothing was a mess, spattered with drying blood, but he seemed unharmed now. Even the burning of the venom was gone. He reached for the arm around his neck and began breaking it free from its stranglehold.
From behind an incredulous cry broke out. Nema sprawled across him, staring at his face and burying her head against his shoulder. "Dave! You're not dead! You're alive!"
Dave was still amazed at that himself. But Bork snorted. "Of course he is. Why'd we take him along with you hanging on in a faint if he were dead? When the snetha-knife kills, it kills completely. They stay dead, or they don't die. Sagittarian?"
She nodded, and the big man seemed to be doing some calculations in his head.
"Yeah," he decided. "It would be. There was one second there around midnight when all the signs were at their absolute maximum favorableness. Someone must have said some pretty dangerous health spells over him then." He turned to Dave, as if aware that the other was comparatively ignorant of such matters. "Happened once before, without this mess-up of the signs. They revived a corpse and found he was unkillable from then on. He lasted eight thousand years, or something like that, before he got burned trying to control a giant salamander. They cut off his head once, but it healed before the axe was all the way through. Woops!"
The bird had dipped downward, rushing toward the ground. It landed at a hundred miles an hour and managed to stop against a small entrance to a cave in the hillside. Except for the one patch where the bird had lighted, they were in the middle of a dense forest.
Dave and Nema were hustled into the cave, while the others melted into the woods, studying the skies. She clung to Dave, crying something about how the Sons of the Egg would torture them.
"All right," he said finally. "Who are these sons of eggs? And what have they got against me?"
"They're monsters," she told him. "They used to be the antimagic individualists. They wanted magic used only when other means wouldn't work. They fought against the Satheri. While magic produced their food and made a better world for them, they hated it because they couldn't do it for themselves. And a few renegade priests like my brother joined them."
"She means me," Bork said. He came in to drop on his haunches and grin at Dave. There was no sign of personal hatred in his look. "I used to be a stooge for Sather Karf, before I got sick of it. How do you feel, Dave Hanson?"
Dave considered it, still in wonder at the truth. "I feel good. Even the venom they were putting in my blood doesn't seem to hurt any more."
"Fine. Means the Sather Karf must believe we killed you—he must have the report by now. If he thinks you're dead, there's no point in his giving chase; he knows I wouldn't let them kill Nema, even if she is a little fool. Anyhow, he's not really such a bad old guy, Dave—not, like some of those Satheri. Well, you figure how you'd like it if you were just a simple man and some priest magicked her away from you—and then sent her back with enough magic of her own to be a witch and make life hell for you because she'd been kicked out by the priest, but he hadn't pulled the wanting spell off her. Or anything else you wanted and couldn't keep against magic. Sure, they fed us. They had to, after they took away our fields and the kine, and got everyone into the habit of taking their dole instead of earning our living in the old way. They made slaves of us. Any man who lets another be responsible for him is a slave. It's a fine world for the Satheri, if they can keep the egg from breaking."
"What's all this egg nonsense?"
Bork shrugged. "Plain good sense. Why should there be a sky shell around the planet? Look, there's a legend here. You should know it, since for all I know it has some meaning for you. Long ago—or away, or whatever—there was a world called Tharé and another called Erath. Two worlds, separate and distinct, on their own branching time paths. They must have been that way since the moment of creation. One was a world of rule and law. One plus one might not always equal two, but it had to equal something. There seems to be some similarity to your world in that, doesn't there? The other was—well, you'd call it chaos, though it had some laws, if they could be predicted. One plus one there depended—or maybe there was no such thing as unity. Mass-energy wasn't conserved. It was deserved. It was a world of anarchy, from your point of view. It must have been a terrible place to live, I guess."
He hesitated somberly. "As terrible as this one is getting to be," he said at last. "Anyway, there were people who lived there. There were the two inhabited worlds in their own time lines, or probability orbits, or whatever. You know, I suppose, how worlds of probability would separate and diverge as time goes on? Of course. Well, these two worlds coalesced."
He looked searchingly at Dave. "Do you see it? The two time lines came together. Two opposites fused into one. Don't ask me to explain it; it was long ago, and all I know for sure is that it happened. The two worlds met and fused, and out of the two came this world, in what the books call the Dawnstruggle. When it was over, our world was as it has been for thousands of centuries. In fact, one result was that in theory, neither original world could have a real past, and the fusion was something that had been—no period of change. It's pretty complicated."
"It sounds worse than that," Dave grumbled. "But while that might explain the mystery of magic working here, it doesn't explain your sky."
Bork scratched his head. "No, not too well," he admitted. "I've always had some doubts about whether or not all the worlds have a shell around them. I don't know. But our world does, and the shell is cracking. The Satheri don't like it; they want to stop it. We want it to happen. For the two lines that met and fused into one have an analogue. Doesn't the story of that fusion suggest something to you, Dave Hanson? Don't you see it, the male principle of rule and the female principle of whim; they join, and the egg is fertile! Two universes join, and the result is a nucleus world surrounded by a shell, like an egg. We're a universe egg. And when an egg hatches, you don't try to put it back together!"
He didn't look like a fanatic, Dave told himself. Crazy or not, he took this business of the hatching egg seriously. But you could never be sure about anyone who joined a cult. "What is your egg going to hatch into?" he asked.
The big man shrugged. "Does an egg know it is going to become a hen—or maybe a fish? We can't possibly tell, of course."
Dave considered it. "Don't you even have a guess?"
Bork answered shortly, "No." He looked worried, Dave thought, and guessed that even the fanatics were not quite sure they wanted to be hatched. Bork shrugged again.
"An egg has got to hatch," he said. "That's all there is to it. We prophesied this, oh, two hundred years ago. The Satheri laughed. Now they've stopped laughing, but they want to stop it. What happens to a chick when it is stopped from hatching? Does it go on being a chick, or does it die? It dies, of course. And we don't want to die. No, Dave Hanson, we don't know what happens next—but we do know that we must go through with it. I have nothing against you personally—but I can't let you stop us. That's why we tried to kill you. If I could, I'd kill you now, with the snetha-knife so they couldn't revive you."
Dave said reasonably, "You can't expect me to like it, you know. The Satheri, at least, saved my life—" He stopped in confusion. Bork was staring at him in hilarious incredulousness that broke into roars of laughter.
"You mean ... Dave Hanson, do you believe everything they tell you? Don't you know that the Satheri arranged to kill you first? They needed a favorable death conjunction to bring you back to life; they got it—by arranging an accident!"
Nema cried out in protest. "That's a lie!"
"Of course," Bork said mildly. "You always were on their side, little sister. You were also usually a darned nuisance, fond as I was of you. Come here."
He caught her and yanked a single hair out of her head. She screamed and tried to claw him, then fought for the hair. Bork was immovable. He held her off easily with one hand while the fingers of the other danced in the air. He spoke what seemed to be a name, though it bore no resemblance to Nema. She quieted, trembling.
"You'll find a broom near the entrance, little sister. Take it and go back, to forget that Dave Hanson lives. You saw him die and were dragged off with us and his body. You escaped before we reached our hideaway. By the knot I tie in your true hair and by your secret name, this I command."
She blinked slowly and looked around as Bork burned the knotted hair. Her eyes swept past Bork and Dave without seeing them and centered on the broom one man held out to her, without appearing to see him, either. She seized the broom. A sob came to her throat. "The devil! The renegade devil! He didn't have to kill Dave! He didn't—"
Her voice died away as she ran toward the clearing. Dave made no protest. He suspected Bork was putting the spell on her for her own good, and he agreed that she was better out of all this.
"Now where were we?" Bork asked. "Oh, yes, I was trying to convert you and knowing I'd failed already. Of course, I don't know that they killed you first—but those are their methods. Take it from me, I know. I was the youngest Ser ever to be accepted for training as a Sather. They wanted you, so they got you."
Dave considered it. It seemed as likely as anything else. "Why me?" he asked.
"Because you can put back the sky. At least, the Satheri think so, and I must admit that in some ways they are smarter than we."
Dave started to protest, but Bork cut him off.
"I know all about your big secret. You're not the engineer, whose true name was longer. We know all that. Our pools are closer to perfection than theirs, not being contaminated by city air, and we see more. But there is a cycle of confirmation; if prophecy indicates a thing will happen, it will happen—though not always as expected. The prophecy fulfills itself, rather than being fulfilled. Then there are the words on the monument—a monument meant for your uncle, but carrying your true name, because his friends felt the short form sounded better. It was something of a coincidence that they had the wrong true name. But prophecy is always strongest when based on coincidence—that is a prime rule. And those words coupled with our revelations prophesy that you—not your uncle—can do the impossible. So what are we going to do with you?"
Bork's attitude was reassuring, somehow. It was nearer his own than any Dave had heard on this world. And the kidnapping was beginning to look like a relief. The Sons of the Egg had gotten him off the hook with Sather Karf. He grinned and stretched back. "If I'm unkillable, Bork, what can you do?"
The big man grinned back. "Flow rock around you up to your nose and toss you into a lake. You'd live there—but you'd always be drowning and you'd find it slightly unpleasant for the next few thousand years! It's not as bad as being turned into a mangrove with your soul intact, but it would last longer. And don't think the Satheri can't pull a lot worse than that. They have your name—everyone has your secret name here—and parts of you."
The conversation was suddenly less pleasant. Dave thought it over. "I could stay here and join your group. I might as well, since I can't really help the Satheri anyhow."
"They'd spot your aura eventually. They'll be checking around here for us for a while. Of course, we might do something about it, if you really converted. But I don't think you would, if you knew more." Bork got up and headed for the entrance. "I wasn't going to let you see the risings, but now maybe I will. If you still want to join, it might be worked. Otherwise, I'll think of something else."
Dave followed the man out into the clearing. A few men were just planning to leave, and they looked at Dave suspiciously, but made no protest. One, whom Dave recognized as the leader with the snetha-knife, scowled.
"The risings are almost due, Bork," he said.
Bork nodded. "I know, Malok. I've decided to let Dave Hanson watch. Dave, this is our leader here, Res Malok."
Dave felt no strong love for his would-be murderer, and it seemed to be mutual. But no protest was lodged. Apparently Bork was their top conjurer, and privileged. They crossed the clearing and went through the woods toward another, smaller one. Here a group of some fifty men were watching the sky, obviously waiting. Others stood around, watching them and avoiding looking up. Almost directly overhead, there was a rent place where the strange absence of color or feature indicated a hole in the dome over them. As it drew nearer true vertical, a chanting began among the men with up-turned faces. Their hands went upwards, fingers spread and curled into an unnatural position. Then they stood waiting.
"I don't like it," Bork whispered to Dave. "This is one of the reasons we're growing too weak to fight the Satheri."
"What's wrong with a ceremony of worship, if you must worship your eggshell?" Dave asked.
"You'll see. That was all it was once—just worship. But now for weeks, things are changing. They think it's a sign of favor, but I don't know. There, watch!"
The hole in the sky was directly overhead now, and the moaning had risen in pitch. Across the little clearing, Malok began backing quietly away, carefully not looking upwards. Nobody but Dave seemed to notice his absence. There was a louder moan.
One of the men in the clearing began to rise upwards slowly. His body was rigid as it lifted a foot, ten feet, then a hundred above the ground. Now it picked up speed, and rushed upwards. Another began to rise, and another. In seconds, more than half of those who had waited were screaming upwards toward the hole in the sky. They disappeared in the distance.
Those who had merely stood by and those who had worshipped waited a few seconds more, but no more rose. The men sighed and began moving out of the clearing. Dave arose to follow, but Bork gestured for him to wait.
"Sometimes—" he said.
They were alone now. Still Bork waited, staring upwards. Then Dave saw something in the sky. A speck appeared and came hurtling down. In seconds, it was the body of one of the men who had risen. Dave felt his stomach tighten and braced himself. There was no slowing as the body fell. It landed in the center of the clearing, without losing speed, but with less noise than he had expected.
When they reached the shattered body, there could be no question of its being dead.
Bork's face was solemn. "If you're thinking of joining, you'd better know the worst. You're too easily shocked to make a good convert unless you're prepared. The risings have been going on for some time. Malok swears it proves we are right. But I've seen five other bodies come down like this. What does it mean? Are they stillborn? We don't know. Shall I revive him for you?"
Dave felt sick as he stared at the ghastly terror on the face of the corpse. The last thing he wanted to see was its revival, but his curiosity about the secret in the sky could not be denied. He nodded.
Bork drew a set of phials and implements in miniature size from under his robe. "This is routine," he said. He snapped his fingers and produced a small flame over the heart of the corpse. Into that he began dusting powders, mixing them with something that looked like blood. Finally he called a name and a command. There was a sharp explosion, a hissing, and Bork's voice calling.
The dead man flowed together and was whole. He stood up woodenly, with his face frozen. "Who calls?" he asked in an uninflected, hollow voice. "Why am I called? I have no soul."
"We call," Bork answered. "Tell us what you saw at the hole in the sky."
A scream tore from the throat of the thing, and its hands came up to its eyes, tearing at them. Its mouth worked soundlessly, and breath sucked in. Then a single word came out.
It fell onto the grass, distorted in death again. Bork shuddered.
"The others were the same," he said. "And he can't be revived again. Even the strongest spell can't bring back his soul. That is gone, somehow."
Dave shivered. "And knowing that, you'd still fight against repairing the sky?"
"Hatching is probably always horrible from inside the shell," Bork answered. "Do you still want to join us? No, I thought not. Well, then, let's go back. We might as well try to eat something while I think about what to do with you."
Malok and most of the others were gone when they reached the cave again. Bork fell to work with some scraps of food, cursing the configurations of the planets as his spell refused to work. Then suddenly the scraps became a mass of sour-smelling stuff. Bork made a face as he tasted it, but he ate it in silence. Dave couldn't force himself to put it in his mouth, though he was hungry by then.
He considered, and then snapped his fingers. "Abracadabra," he cried. He swore as something wet and slimy that looked like seaweed plopped into his hand. The next time he got a limp fish that had been dead far too long. But the third try worked better. This time, a whole bunch of bananas appeared. They were a little riper than he liked, but some of them were edible enough. He handed some to the other man, who quickly abandoned his own creation.
Bork was thoughtful as he ate. Finally he grimaced. "New magic!" he said. "Maybe that's the secret of the prophecy. I thought you knew no magic."
"I didn't," Dave admitted. He was still tingling inside himself at this confirmation of his earlier discovery. It was unpredictable magic, but apparently bore some vague relationship to what he was wishing for.
"So the lake's out," Bork decided. "With unknown powers at your command, you might escape in time. Well, that settles it. There's one place where nobody will look for you or listen to you. You'll be nothing but another among millions, and that's probably the best hiding place for you. With the overseers they have, you couldn't even turn yourself back to the Satheri, though I'll admit I'm hoping you don't want them to find you."
"And I was beginning to think you liked me," Dave commented bitterly.
Bork grinned. "I do, Dave Hanson. That's why I'm picking the easiest place to hide you I can think of. It will be hell, but anything else would be worse. Better strip and put this cloth on."
The thing he held out was little more than a rag, apparently torn from one of the robes. "Come on, strip, or I'll burn off your clothes with a salamander. There, that's better. Now wrap the cloth around your waist and let it hang down in front. It'll be easier on you if you don't attract much attention. The sky seems to indicate the planets favor teleportation now. Be quick before I change my mind and think of something worse!"
Dave didn't see what he did this time, but there was a puff of flame in front of his eyes.
The next second, he stood manacled in a long line of men loaded with heavy stones. Over their backs fell the cutting lashes of a whip. Far ahead was a partially finished pyramid. Dave was obviously one of the building slaves.