The "Bermuda Triangle of wizardry" was not, ironically, a place where ordinary people saw wizardly things, but a place where wizards became ordinary people.
"They lose their wizardry?" Kit asked with alarm.
"Permanently?" Nita added.
"Yeah," said Tom. "The ones that come back at all, which isn't everyone."
"The good news is that not everyone falls in, either," Carl said. "It's targeting everyone above a certain power level, usually only held by young firebrands and avatars. You guys are right on the cusp, so we're hoping if you go in, you'll be able to get enough of a response from the anomaly to analyze, but not so much it takes you out."
"Unfortunately, people at lower, safer power levels like us don't trigger so much as a ripple," Tom said, "or we'd have been able to get some hard data on it before now. There is a risk--you guys willing to take it?"
Kit said, "If anyone falls in, it's gonna be me, right? I'm younger, my power levels are a jot higher."
Tom and Carl exchanged glances. "We're hoping neither of you 'falls in,'" Carl said. "But yeah, you're at higher risk.
"I'm up for it," Kit said. "If anything happens, Nita'll save me."
"Oh, thanks," Nita said. "I get the hard part, huh? And at my miniscule power levels, too."
"Set up the data-gathering spell well out," Tom reminded them. "And be careful!"
This Bermuda Triangle, Nita read in her book, was a region of space nearly three light-years from the nearest star. It was only a few hundred thousand miles across, flat, parallel to the galactic plane, so that it was possible to skim over it without coming into contact with it at all. The only reason it was a danger to anyone was that it was near enough to the Crossings that during about two months of Rirhath B's orbit, twenty to thirty transits a day passed directly through it.
And maybe one in three hundred of those was a wizard.
And fully half of the wizards with enough juice to be planet-hopping were strong enough to get sucked in.
"Two or three wizards a year," Nita said, "for years. Look at this! And we've been through the Crossings enough--and Dairine--Kit, what do you wanna bet Ponch would have lit it right up? It could have been any of us before now!"
"The anomaly is a lot older than the disappearances, though," Kit said.
"Younger wizards," Nita realized. "The Powers have been calling wizards younger--they probably foresaw the Pullulus."
"Our gate's ready," said Kit.
"Are you ready?" said Nita.
"Nothing to it," said Kit, and away they went.
They stepped onto a platform at the Crossings and fell, and fell, and fell through space, cold and dark and twisting. Something black opened up and Kit yelled. Nita reached for him but her hands passed through the black like it was nothing but a shadow. Then she landed, back in real space, in a wizardly bubble of air hanging over a flat expanse of the faintest shimmer between the stars.
She was alone.
"Kit?" she yelled. "Kit?"
Nita made herself breathe, sit down, and open her book.
Kit's fall seemed to take much longer. At some point, the darkness lightened, and Kit saw a figure beside him, holding out his hands. Kit nearly took the stranger's hands, but then the cool, white light brightened enough for him to see who it was. Sharp features, red hair, a tailored suit with creases that could cut you--the first incarnation of the Lone Power Kit had ever seen.
Kit jerked his hands back.
"Your visit here is going to be extremely short if you hit the ground at the speed you're falling," the Lone Power said.
"And you care why, exactly?" Kit answered, and found he had to yell: there was air, screaming past.
"You're no good to me if you're dead," said the Lone Power.
"I can stop myself, thanks!" Kit yelled back. He had to fight to open his book in the wind, but he found the spell he needed, said the words, and came to an abrupt, if slightly bouncy, stop in the air.
The Lone Power fell below him, then bobbed back up, looking completely unruffled. "Well? Are you coming down to the ground?" he asked.
Kit looked down. There was ground, somewhere far below; he could tell, because he could see the top of a tree. Around the tree was flat, solid black, as far as the eye could see. "All right," said Kit, because he couldn't see what else to do about it. He said another word, and began to drop slowly, like dandelion fluff.
"It's a pomegranate tree," said the Lone Power, as they drifted down. He reached over and plucked a fruit from the tree, and held it out to Kit. "Would you like one?"
Kit's feet found the ground. "No, thank you. I'm not that stupid."
"I don't suppose," said the Lone Power, sounding wistful, "that you have anything else to eat? I'm afraid I can't convince anything to grow; pomegranates are the only life I have much affinity for." He was tearing the pomegranate open with his fingers; red juice dripped down his hands, and he popped seeds into his mouth as he spoke.
"Uh," said Kit. This was not exactly how he expected the Lone Power to behave. "No apples?"
The Lone Power gave him a wry, red smile. "The apples grew on the One's tree of knowledge. I only pointed them out."
"Let me check," Kit said, unnerved, and rummaged around in his otherspace pocket. There was--yeah, there was a loaf of bread; his mamì had asked him to pick it up to go with dinner, and he had forgotten to put it away before going out on assignment. He pulled it out of the pocket and tore off a piece to give to the Lone Power.
"Thank you," said the Lone Power, his fingers brushing Kit's as he took the bread.
Kit pulled his hand back and wiped a bead of pomegranate juice on his jeans. He looked around uncomfortably. The ground was flat and black, except the little hill of loose soil the pomegranate tree was rooted in. The sky stretched out to black corners, an indistinguishable horizon, but was white with light over the tree.
"The light's for the tree," he realized. Of course. The Lone Power wasn't fond of it otherwise. "Where's the soil from? Not this ground."
"I curved the whole roof of this trap to pool the starlight here in the center," the Lone Power answered. "The soil is--compost, you might say. A number of wizards have died here."
Kit whirled to look at him. "So this a trap you made--to catch wizards." He'd thought it would be something like that when they were studying up for it, but the Lone Power hadn't seemed particularly interested in killing him, or even trying very hard to tempt him.
The Lone Power laughed. Not triumphantly, not victoriously, not even cruelly. He laughed as if Kit were a puppy, doing puppy antics, chasing his own tail or leaping for rubber toys. "Little wizardling," he said, "how self-centered you are. This is a trap for me."
"What?" said Kit.
"After all the aeons this place has existed," said the Lone Power, "why do you think I am still here?"
The data-catcher spell had done its job. Nita had a full work-up on the structure of the thing, where its supports were, how it opened, how fast it shut again, the exact power level it was looking for. One side of it was ever so slightly concave, so that knocking out the central support would collapse the thing entirely.
Nita wondered if that would let Kit out.
There was, apparently, another way out: it was written in plain letters in the Speech, letters hundreds of miles high but perfectly visible if you were far enough out.
It said, "To enter, you must go forward; to exit, you must reverse yourself."
Nita thought it sounded like something Tom and Carl's koi would say. There was something useful there, if only she weren't too upset to think straight.
"In the early days of the universe, three wizards sacrificed their lives to build this trap," the Lone Power said. "They knew they would only be trapping a piece of me here, but they were satisfied with that. They did not realize, I think, that someday they would be trapping wizards in it.
"You see," the Lone Power went on, "there's actually a very simple way to get out. All you have to do is make yourself the complete opposite of what you are. Some wizards turn from light, embrace me, and manage to escape, wizards no more. You could do that, of course, but you'd never see Nita again, and considering that you've told your family about your wizardry, you'd probably never see them again after wizardry left you, either. Some refuse to turn. They die here, sooner or later. If you refuse to take food from my hand, you'll probably die very soon."
"There's always Timeheart," Kit interjected.
"Little wizardling," the Lone Power said, stepping toward him. That name again; it made Kit's skin crawl, because it was too close to the name his own family called him, El Niño. The baby of the family and the powerful storm. Likewise, the diminutive modifier on wizard implied more power, not less. "I am not sure you can reach Timeheart from here, this place is so well sealed. It's an unkind tomb to be caught in.
"But you could," the Lone Power offered, "stay here the length of your natural life. Remain a wizard. Argue with me, because of course you are right and I am wrong on every conceivable subject in creation. Fight with me. Keep me from killing myself from boredom."
"And never see Nita or my family again," Kit pointed out. "Pretty much none of the options you've described give me any chance of that--if I chose to believe you about being cut off from Timeheart."
"This is the Speech," said the Lone Power. "Even I can't lie in it."
"What about you?" Kit said. "Why don't you change your ways? You could get out if you made yourself good, couldn't you?" That was it, that was the other option. If this Lone Power could be redeemed, he could get out--and having been redeemed, he would almost certainly get Kit out.
"For me," said the Lone Power, "a reversal of self is literal death: they'll take me back into the fold, and the fold is Timeheart. You know that--you've seen it, one of the other versions of me."
"He didn't seem too bothered about it," Kit said bravely, not shrinking back as the Lone Power came closer and laid a hand on his arm.
"And yet you don't go loping headlong toward Timeheart, do you, little wizardling?" the Lone Power asked. "Isn't it the point for you? To go on living? Should I be denied that, denied the opportunity to stay in the universe and see all its wonders, experience all the joys you defend?"
Kit shivered as the Lone Power ran his fingers up to Kit's shoulder, to his neck. "What--what are you doing?"
The Lone Power trailed his fingers over Kit's chin, Kit's mouth. "Have I mentioned," said the Lone Power, "that I am very, very bored?"
Nita didn't have enough power to break the trap down, not even with a single shot to the central column. She was just the tiniest bit away from having enough power for it. And if she had had enough power, she would have fallen in with Kit.
It was built that way on purpose, she realized. So that no one could walk up to it and dismantle it without solving the puzzle first, however you were supposed to do that. Maybe you could only solve it from the inside, and she would just have to wait for Kit.
For Kit to come out no longer a wizard? No. There had to be another way.
She couldn't call for help from any of the people on her short list. Kit was unavailable. Dairine would become unavailable if she passed in range of this thing.
Maybe a group working? If just one other wizard worked in concert with her, lent Nita his or her power, she'd have enough to knock the damn thing in--but what would happen to a wizard who borrowed another's power to boost her own, near this thing? It would catch her too. It might drag in the lender-wizard or it might not, but it would almost certainly drag in the lender-wizard's power.
"Crap," Nita muttered. What the hell was she supposed to do?
"Would it help if I looked more your age?" the Lone Power asked, shifting even as he said it. Suddenly he looked like he could pass for one of the older kids at school; a junior, maybe. He hadn't done anything to his suit, and it didn't fit him quite as sharply anymore. He looked like a gangly teenager, more height than breadth.
"I," said Kit, and got no further.
"Would it help if I looked like a girl?" asked the Lone Power. "Like your--"
"No!" Kit said, forestalling him. "No, that wouldn't help. If I were the kind of person that mattered to, I wouldn't be a wizard, would I?"
He'd been about to say partner, Kit was sure of it. He'd been about to take on Nita's face. Kit was not remotely prepared to handle that. A Lone Power that looked like a teenage boy was more than enough.
"If you say so," said the Lone Power, touching Kit's cheek.
"Stop it," said Kit. He had to think--he'd almost had it before the Lone Power had started distracting him with this. He gripped his manual as hard as he could and willed it to talk to him--
And that was it. The manual itself was the answer. "You could become a wizard," Kit burst out.
The Lone Power dropped his hand, looking surprised. "I could what, now, little wizardling?" he asked, his mouth curving in a smile. A pleased smile.
This Lone Power wanted to argue, wanted Kit to fight, not to give in. If Kit gave in, this Lone Power's amusement was gone.
And that was his weakness. Because if the Lone Power was willing to entertain argument, Kit had a chance to convince him.
"You could take the Oath," said Kit. "Become a wizard. That would be enough of a change, switching sides, to get you out of here, right? But you wouldn't go straight to Timeheart. You'd get to stay in the universe and fight to protect it. And I can promise you one thing," he said, grinning as well now.
"What's that?" said the Lone Power.
"If there's one thing wizardry's not, it's boring," Kit said, his coup de grace.
"I'd be fighting myself," said the Lone Power.
"You'd know your own tricks, you'd probably win," Kit said.
"One would hope," said the Lone Power. "I'd be asked to undo all my own work."
"Your work is all the same," Kit said. "If you could get out of here as you are, wouldn't you be just as bored to go back to it? This would be completely new."
Something in the Lone Power's eyes glittered. He held out his hand. "Let me see your Oath," he said.
Kit gulped. He opened his manual to it and handed it over.
The Lone Power took it and turned away, pacing. "This has changed," he said.
"It's the 933rd edition," Kit answered.
"The Oath," said the Lone Power, "has changed. Did you know that? 'In Life's name, and for Life's sake.' Wizards used to swear to the One. Considering the One is all things to all people, that was... you could be asked to do anything, really. If I swear this, at least I'll know what I'm signing on for."
The Lone Power turned back to him suddenly, shut the book and held it out to Kit. Kit took it back. "You won't do it, then," Kit asked.
"I'll do it," the Lone Power said, "for a kiss."
Kit thought, Oh, shit, he's playing with me.
"Little wizardling," said the Lone Power, as if he had heard, "forgive me my games. It's the littlest thing I ask in return for your victory. One kiss."
"Kisses can be symbols," Kit said. "Contracts."
"The physical act," the Lone Power said dismissively, "and only what emotion that act entails of its own nature. I ask for nothing but that."
The Lone Power, Kit realized, couldn't quite decide if he wanted Kit to say yes or no. If Kit refused, the Lone Power had an excuse not to take the leap into the unknown, not to speak the Oath. If Kit acceded, the Lone Power would have the chance to escape, but remade, redeemed, reborn.
They'd met a version of the Lone Power recently, the female one who had bothered Kit, who had commented on getting milage out of ambivalence. Kit had thought the Lone Power meant ambivalence was harder to recognize, harder to counter. Nita had thought that the Lone Power had come to a point of occasionally wanting to do good without seeming to.
This Lone Power before him--was he projecting ambivalence to try to confuse Kit into choosing something wrong? Was a kiss a step down a slippery slope to turning? Or was the Lone Power ambivalent because some part of him wanted to choose good?
But if the Lone Power were trying to tempt him to turn--then Kit would get out, and the Lone Power would be left here alone. The Lone Power had said he didn't want that--hadn't he? No, he'd said Kit could stay a wizard and argue with him for the rest of his natural life; he hadn't said that was his goal. In fact, when Kit had tried to talk about it was when the Lone Power had tried to distract him with the unexpected touch.
I'll do it for a kiss, he'd said, in Speech. That was binding. An oath for the Oath. Why would he make that promise if it were a false temptation? Surely that would be a Pyrrhic victory for the Lone Power, to turn Kit and then turn himself. Yet if he meant it, why put the condition on it? Why not just take the leap? Either he was betting Kit wouldn't agree, or he was betting--
"You don't think it'll take," Kit said. "The Oath. You think you can say it and nothing'll happen."
"Wizardry doesn't live in the unwilling heart," the Lone Power quoted softly. He sounded--disappointed, almost.
Kit nodded, and committed himself: "One kiss," he said, "when you're willing to be a wizard."
"You don't think I'll be willing," said the Lone Power. His smile looked sad. "You doubt me. But you don't know me--you've been here how long, an hour? You've no idea. Am I willing to take on the mantle of wizardry? For my freedom? Oh, little wizardling. Your kiss is nothing. For my freedom, I am."
Something was happening. Nita flipped open her book to check, but she could see it with her own eyes, the way the glimmer was intensifying.
The data-catcher spell showed the doors of the trap trembling on their hinges. It was about to disgorge something.
Would he still be a wizard?
If he wasn't, hitting hard vacuum would suck. Nita nudged her air bubble up to the ripples preparing to break and hoped for the best.
The Lone Power backed Kit into the pomegranate tree and--
"Just a kiss," Kit said, a bit desperately. "No funny business with hands where they're not supposed to be--"
"All right," said the Lone Power, and put his hands on Kit's jaw, which Kit couldn't quite manage to complain was inappropriate.
Then the Lone Power pressed his whole body against Kit's and when Kit opened his mouth to call foul on that, the Lone Power tilted his head, leaned in, and covered Kit's mouth with his own. Kit was gripping his book to his side with one hand and the tree behind him with the other hand, the bark ridged against his palm. He tried to speak anyway, and his words got lost in the hungry, wet kiss, the Lone Power's tongue sliding against his own.
The Lone Power pulled back, drawing in a breath. His back hunched as he pressed his forehead to Kit's, so he was no longer pressed body to body with Kit, only face to face, hands balled in Kit's shirt.
"The Oath," Kit said. His voice rasped; he didn't know why.
"Little wizardling," the Lone Power said, "what have you done to me? I could have broken you, I could have killed you, I could have sent you out into the world with me whispering in your ear, and instead you broke me. And so easily. How did you do it, little Kit?"
"You wanted to break," Kit said. His lips felt strange. Too wet.
"Give me your book," said the Lone Power.
Kit gave it to him.
The Lone Power opened the book on Kit's shoulder, staying too close, keeping him trapped. Kit didn't push him. "Read it," Kit said. That was push enough.
"'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,'" the Lone Power read, and stopped.
"Read it," Kit said.
"Little wizardling," said the Lone Power, his breath on Kit's cheek. He sounded, of all things, fond. "'Rejecting all prior usages. 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 or threaten another.'"
The Lone Power's skinny teenage boy hips were pressed to Kit's now, and it was like before in the startling, aching way it made Kit feel, but it wasn't quite the same. Kit realized, from the pressure, that the Lone Power was leaning on him rather than supporting his own weight. Kit felt as if something coiled up deep in his belly was coming loose, spinning outward; and it felt right, so he didn't try to stop it.
"'To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will ever put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so,'" the Lone Power read, his voice barely a whisper now, but that didn't matter, because the whole universe was listening. "'Reconciling myself with Heart of Time, where all our sundered times are one and all our myriad worlds lie whole, in That from Which they proceeded...'
"Well," said the Lone Power, shifting his gaze from the book to Kit's face. "I'm a wizard now."
And then Kit was alone.
The wizard who came out of the trap was not Kit. He looked awfully familiar though.
"Dai stihó," he said, wryly, and Nita recognized his voice.
"You--" She swallowed. "Greetings and defiance--"
"I'm on errantry," he said, "and I greet you. So please cut the defiance."
"You're what?" said Nita.
The Lone Power--Lone Wizard?--jerked his chin toward the shimmer in space. "The nature of the trap--it doesn't let you out unless you reverse what you are. I am a wizard. Your partner's doing."
"It would probably be a good thing to do," the Lone Wizard mused, "to get him out without him having to renounce his wizardry."
"Yes," said Nita. "But you--"
"You've been analyzing the trap?" said the Lone Wizard, flipping open his own manual and pulling up her diagrams.
His own manual.
"How," said Nita.
"If you take out the central strut, the whole thing will collapse on top of him," the Lone Wizard said. "We need to take it out slowly enough to pull him free. If I hit the exterior struts, it'll fold in easier. Except--for the door to swing open so we can pull him free, hm."
He looked at Nita speculatively.
"What?" Nita said. Her mouth was dry.
"You calculated the door opens and shuts in six milliseconds?" the Lone Wizard asked.
"Yes," said Nita.
"You could probably bear my power that long," the Lone Wizard mused. "That would kick the door open, and then you return my power and I haul you both out."
"Your wizardry," Nita said carefully.
"My power," the Lone Wizard said blandly.
Nita was shaking. This was all too damn fast. "But why would you trust me with that?"
"Do you know of a way to hand power off in half-measures?" the Lone Wizard asked.
"Wait," said Nita. "Wait. If I--if you--" If he was really a wizard, then it didn't matter if she gave his power back to him; he'd use it for good. He'd have to. But if he weren't--if she held onto it--it would probably kill her, but she'd take his power from him, for good. Defang the Lone Power.
And Kit would be lost.
Nita wondered, hysterically, where the trick of it was. If she tried to keep his power, would it nonetheless return to him when she died? So that she killed herself and Kit at the same time, all for nothing? Or was this facet of the Lone Power willing to sacrifice all his power to trick her into killing them both, knowing that his other avatars would continue to walk in and out of the universe?
"I didn't mean for it to be a temptation," the Lone Wizard said quietly. "Old habits die hard, I suppose. Your partner thought I was trying to tempt him, too, when I--was sincere." Sincere: in the language they spoke, it was synonymous with speaking. "When I was willing to take the Oath."
"He convinced you to take the Oath?" Nita said.
"Despite his own doubts about me, yes," the Lone Wizard answered.
"Say you're a wizard," Nita said. "Swear it."
"I'm a wizard," said the Lone Wizard. "In Life's name, I swear it."
"Okay," said Nita.
He didn't ask her to swear she would return his power. Nita wondered if it were trust, or if he was powerful enough to know her heart. Because her heart had decided almost immediately: for the chance of saving Kit, she believed him.
He drew out the spell diagram just as he'd described, fast and easy, like it was second nature to him. Nita made him let her read the whole thing before he started enacting it, and then she felt the white-hot slap of his power, and she started to slide into darkness, and even with the wizardly time dilation effects, it happened so quickly that it was an anticlimax when she screamed the word to hand his power back.
And then she and Kit were clinging to each other, shaking, and the Lone Wizard was leaning on an unlikely pomegranate tree suspended in empty space.
"Do you mind taking this home with you?" the Lone Wizard asked. "I don't think it would do well where I'm heading."
"I," said Nita. "Sure."
"Will we see you again?" said Kit, and Nita wondered what possessed him to ask that, because even if he was a wizard, it was just too much.
"Again," the Lone Wizard mused, "is an interesting concept for one with my relationship to eternity. But when your debt needs to be paid, I'll pay it."
And then he vanished.
"Oh shit," Kit said.
"What?" Nita asked, breathless.
"My book," Kit said. "He took my book."
"You can't steal a wizard's manual!" Nita said.
Kit was silent for a moment. "He didn't," Kit said. "He asked me to give it to him, and I did."
Nita laughed and cut it off with a gulp and said, "Did he--did you give him your wizardry?"
Kit rubbed his stomach and looked thoughtful. He said a word in Speech that made the air bubble expand, and then he said, "I'm not sure. Maybe. But if I did--I think wizardry must be like love. The more you give, the more you have."
"Oh," said Nita. "That's good, that's--" The Lone Wizard had given her his power, and she'd given it back. If what Kit said was true, what did that mean for his power levels? For hers?
She was dying to know what had happened to Kit, but he leaned against her tiredly, one hand on the trunk of the pomegranate tree, and said, "Come on, get your manual out, let's go home."
Nita paged through her manual to find their return pick-up from the Crossings. Kit leaned in to read over her shoulder, and Nita looped an arm around his waist. "Hey," Nita said, "maybe your parents will buy you an iBook."
"I can't just borrow yours?" Kit asked, grinning. He started reading from her manual. Laughing with the sheer relief of having him back, Nita joined him.