High Wizardry New Millennium Edition (3 page)

Then, though, things changed seriously in two very different ways. First, the little local library finally got its computers installed—simple downmarket machines though they were—and its Internet connection going: and her life shifted dramatically as she was released into whole new realms of knowledge, fresh and immediate, that gave even the books a run for their money. And second, Dairine started to notice mass media, and a whole new sheaf of dreams abruptly came alive.

In reading straight through the children’s library she’d ingested a huge number of folk tales and fairy tales. They hadn’t had that much effect on her. But when she first got a taste of the new trilogy of Star Wars movies, a peculiar upheaval took place in her heart; one that made her half crazy until she’d seen all the old ones, and left her desperately excited for the new, even the animated “Clone Wars” film that had just come out. Magic, great power for good and evil, she’d naturally read about in many other places. But the Star Wars movies somehow hit her with a terrible immediacy that the books had not; with a clear picture of power available even to the young sons of slaves or untrained farmboys on distant planets in the future, and therefore surely available to someone who knew things in the present. And if you could learn that supreme knowledge, and master the power that filled and shaped the universe, how could the world ever hurt you? For a good while Dairine’s reading suffered, and her daydreams were full of the singing blaze of lightsabers, the electric smell of blasterfire, and the shadow of ultimate evil in a black cloak, which after terrible combat she always defeated. Her sister teased her a lot less about it than Dairine expected.

Her sister… Their relationship early on had been peculiar, almost a little on the casual or remote side compared to the sibling relationships Dairine had first come up against among the other kids in her track at school. It wasn’t that it was hostile. When both Dairine and Nita were little, they’d played together often enough. But where learning came in, for a while there had been trouble. There were times that Nita showed Dairine things she was learning at school… and when Dairine learned them from her almost immediately, and shortly was better at them than Nita was, Nita for some reason or other got upset. Dairine had trouble understanding why. WHen she succeeded this way, it was a victory for them both, wasn’t it, over the world, which would hurt you if you didn’t know things? But Nita seemed not to understand that.

Eventually things got better. As they got older, they started growing together, sharing more. Possibly Nita was understanding her better, or had simply seen how much Dairine liked to know things; for she started tutoring Dairine in the upper-grade subjects she was studying, algebra and so forth. Dairine started actively liking her sister (though she kept herself restrained about showing it, nervous about revealing even to her own sister too much of what was going on inside her head). When they started having trouble with bullies, and their parents sent them both off to self-defense school, Dairine mastered that art as quickly as anything else she’d ever decided to learn. Then when a particularly bad beating near home made it plain that Nita wasn’t using what they’d learned, she quietly put the word out that anyone who messed with Nita would have Dairine to deal with. The bullying stopped, for both of them, and Dairine felt smugly satisfied.

That is, she did until one day after school she saw a kid come at Nita to “accidentally” body-block her into the dirt of the playground she was crossing. Dairine started to move to prevent it—but as the kid threw himself at Nita, he abruptly slid sideways off the air around her as if he had run into a glass wall. No one else seemed to notice. Even the attacker looked blank as he fell sideways into the dust. But Nita smiled a little, and kept on walking… and suddenly the world fell out from under Dairine, and everything was terribly wrong.
Her sister knew something she didn’t.

Dairine’s whole inner world immediately blazed up in a raging fire of curiosity. She started watching Nita closely, and her best friend, Kit, too, on a hunch. Slowly Dairine began to catch Nita at things no one else seemed to notice; odd words muttered to empty air, after which lost things abruptly became found, or stuck things came loose.

There was one day when their father had been complaining about the crabgrass in the front lawn, and Dairine had seen an odd, thoughtful look cross Nita’s face. That evening her sister had sat on the lawn for a long time, muttering under her breath. Dairine couldn’t hear a word she said. But a week and a half later their father was standing on and admiring a crabgrass-free lawn, extolling the new brand of weedkiller he’d tried. He didn’t notice, as Dairine did, the large patch of crabgrass under the apple trees in the neighbor’s yard next door… carpeting a barren place where the neighbor had been trying to get something green to grow,
anything,
for as long as Dairine could remember. It was all stuff like that… little things, strange thin nothing Dairine could understand and use. It drove her
nuts.

Then came summer vacation at the beach—and the strangeness started to come out in the open. Nita and Kit started spending a lot of time away from home, sneaking in and out as if there were something to hide. Dairine heard her mother’s uneasy conversations about this with her father, and was amused, since she knew that whatever secret thing Nita was doing with Kit, it wasn’t sex, but something way more interesting. For the time being covered for Nita and Kit and bided her time, waiting for something to happen that she could exploit.

The time came soon enough. One night the two of them went swimming and didn’t come back when it got dark, as they’d agreed to. Seriously worried about them, Dairine’s mom and dad wet out looking for Nita and Kit on the beach, taking Dairine with them. Amid all the confusion and the worry—for Dairine’s mom was terrified that there might be sharks out in that water—it took no time at all to “get separated” from them. And Dairine was a quarter-mile down the beach from them when with a rush of water and noisy breath, a forty-foot humpback whale breached right in front of her, ran itself aground…and turned into Nita.

Nita went white with shock at the sight of Dairine. Dairine didn’t care. “You’re going to tell me
everything,”
Dairine said. Then she ran down the beach to distract her parents just long enough for Nita and Kit—also just changed back from a whale—to get back into their bathing suits. And after the noisy, angry scene with their parents that followed, after the house was quiet, Dairine went to Nita’s room, where Kit was waiting, too, and made them them tell her the whole story.

It was like a world ending… and a new one opening up. Wizard’s manuals, oaths, wizardry, spells, quests, terrible dangers beyond the world, great powers that moved unseen and unsuspected beneath the surface of everyday existence, and every now and then broke surface… Dairine was ecstatic. It was all there, everything she had longed for. And if they could have it,
she could have it too—

Dairine saw their faces fall, and felt the soft laughter of the world starting behind her back again. You couldn’t have this magic unless you were offered it by the Powers that controlled it. Yes, sometimes it ran in families, but there was no guarantee that it would ever pass to you….

At that point Dairine began to shut their words out. She promised to keep their secret for the time being, and to cover for them the best she could. But inside she was all one great frustrated cry of rage:
Why them, why them and not
me! Days later, when the cry ebbed, the frustration gave way to blunt, stubborn determination.
I’ll have it. I will.

She’d gone into Nita’s room, found her wizard’s manual, and opened it. The last time she’d held it, it had looked like a well-worn kid’s book from the library. When she’d borrowed it, had read like one. Now, though, the excitement, the exultation, flared up in Dairine again. For instead of a story, between the book’s covers she found pages and pages of an Arabic-looking script she couldn’t read. And near the front were more pages that she
could
read, in English.

She skimmed them, turning pages swiftly. The pages were full of warnings and cautions, phrases about the wizard’s responsibility to help slow down the death of the universe, paragraphs about the price each wizard paid for his new power, and about the terrible Ordeal-quest that lay before every novice who took the Wizards’ Oath: sections about old strengths that moved among the worlds, not all of them friendly. But these Dairine scorned as she’d scorned Nita’s cautions. The parts that spoke of a limitless universe full of life and of wizards to guard it, of “the Billion Homeworlds,” “the hundred million species of humanity,” those parts stayed with her, filled her mind with images of strangeness and glory and adventure until she was drowning in her own thought of unnumbered stars.
I can do it,
she thought.
I can take care of myself. I’m not afraid. I’ll matter, I’ll
be
something….

She flipped through the English section to its end, finding there one page, with a single block of type set small and neat:

In Life’s name, and for Life’s sake, I assert that I will employ the Art which is Its gift in Life’s service alone. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; nor will I change any creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will ever put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is fit to do so—looking always toward the Heart of Time, where all our sundered times are one, and all our myriad worlds lie whole, in That from Which they proceeded.

It was the Oath that Nita had told her about. Not caring that she didn’t completely understand parts of it, Dairine drew a long breath and read it out loud, almost in triumph. And the terrible silence that drew itself down around her as she spoke, blocking out the sounds of day, didn’t frighten her; it exhilarated her. Something was going to happen, at last, at
last….

She went to bed eagerly that night.

Up and Running

Nita and Kit and Dairine made their way among the shops of the lower level of Penn Station and caught the C train for the Upper West Side, coming up the stairs from the station on the west side of the intersection of Eighty-first and Central Park West. For a little bit they stood there just getting their bearings. It was warm, but not uncomfortable yet: Central Park glowed green and golden across the street from them.

Dairine was fidgeting. “Now where?”

“Right here,” Nita said, turning around. The four bocks stretching downtown from them, between 77
th
and 81
st,
were dominated by the huge graceful bulk of the American Museum of Natural History, with its marble steps and beast-carved pediment, and the great bronze equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt looking eastward across at the park. But far closer to them, diagonally across the street to the right, was the massive glass cube of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, packed with planets built to scale, and the giant sphere of the Sun that also housed the Hayden Planetarium.

“Bored already,” Dairine said, her face twisted into an expression of profound disdain. “Screw that. I’m going over to Natural History and look at the stuffed elephants.”

Nita knew better than to take this attitude seriously: she knew Dairine was simply cranky about being made to do something she hadn’t thought of herself first. “Climb on the stuffed elephants, you mean,” Nita said, as that had been one of many disastrous results of one of Dairine’s previous school trips. “Not a chance. You’re staying with us.”

“Oh? What makes you think you can keep track of me if I decide to—”

“This,” Kit said grimly, hefting his wizard’s manual. “If we have to, we can put a tracer on you. Or a leash…”

“Oh, yeah? Well, I’ve got news for you!
You
are not the boss of me, and if you—”

“Kit,” Nita said under her breath. He looked at her: she shook her head a bit, then glanced over at her sister. “Dair, are you nuts? This place is full of space stuff. A live Space Shuttle mockup. Meteorites ten feet long. A bookstore.” She smiled slightly. “With Star Wars books…”

Dairine stared at Nita. “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? God, you’re so
slow
sometimes. Come on!” And the moment the traffic was clear, she headed across the street. Seconds later she was trotting down one side of the semicircular brick ramp toward the broad low arch below the main planetarium cube overhanging the Space Center’s main doors.

“You catch more flies with honey…” Nita said to Kit under her breath as the two of them followed at a safe distance.

“I guess,” Kit said, shaking his head. “She’s not like my sisters…”

“Yeah, well, your sisters are human beings.”

They laughed together and went in after Dairine. To Nita’s mild relief—because paying for her little sister’s admission ticket would have killed her hot-dog money—Dairine had money for that with her. “Dad give you that?” Nita said as she paid.

“No, this is mine,” said Dairine, wrapping the change up with the rest of a small wad of bills and buttoning it into the front pocket of her shorts.

“Where’d you get all that?”

“Taught a couple of guys in my class to play poker last month,” said Dairine. And off she went, heading straight for the bookstore.

“Neets?” Kit said, tossing his manual in one hand.

Nita thought about it. “Naah,” she said. “Let her go. Dairine!”

“What?”

“Just don’t leave the building!”

“Okay.”

“Is that safe?” Kit said.

“What, leaving her alone? She’ll get into the Shuttle mock-up and not come out till closing time. Good thing there don’t seem to be a lot of people here today. Anyway, she
did
say she wouldn’t leave. If she were going to weasel out of it, she’d ‘ve just grunted or something.”

The two of them paused to glance into the souvenir store, full of books and posters and T-shirts and hanging Enterprises—Shuttle and starship — and an impressive assortment of every kind of science. Dairine was already browsing through a fat
The Art of Star Wars: The Clone Wars
coffee-table book, almost visibly salivating. “They’ve got some plastic lightsabers over there,” Kit said over her shoulder, teasing. “With Real Action Sound…”

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