aschesis: From the ancient Greek ασκησις, askesis, a trial or test: the act of testing something or trying it out. In wizardry, the act of testing a spell to check whether it has the desired effect.
Then the chiefs of the Tuatha Dé Danann were gathered round Lugh. And he asked his smith what power he wielded for them. 'Not hard to say,' quoth he. 'Though the men of Erin bide in the battle to the end of seven years, for every spear that parts from its shaft, or sword that shall break therein, I will provide a new weapon in its place.'
Cath Maige Tuired
For every fallen leaf, a new flower;
for every burned clearing, a young forest;
for every sacrifice freely given, a gift of beginnings.
The Book of Night with Moon
Far ahead, Ronan could see light. It was staggeringly brilliant, but he didn't need to squint; the light knew him, welcomed him. He went forward.
-- And a voice, ragged-edged with terror, cried around him, No you don't! Not that way! No -- Ronan --! Each word wrapped around him tighter than the last, slowing him, cutting through the serene acceptance of things, and Ronan had nothing to fight it with; he'd left anger and struggle and passion, and now the voice -- Nita, always Nita, stubborn and fierce and reminding Ronan of what must be done -- told him to return. Not that way; not yet. Ronan sighed and went still.
He drifted awake, midday spring sunshine striping his pillow. For a long time Ronan could only lie there, in the light that was dingy compared to the light he used to see when he closed his eyes. He had the notion that it should have been easy to get up, given how near-weightless he felt, but it was a empty absence of weight, a lack where there had been blazing Presence. You made a sacrifice and lived, Ronan reminded himself. They need you for more things than Spear-Bearing, so buck up.
Really following his own advice was too high an order, but at least with this Ronan was able to drag himself out of bed, into clothes, and downstairs. Halfway through a slice of toast, he became aware that someone wanted to speak with him via wizardry. Ronan swallowed his toast. "Yeah?"
A hesitation, and the voice against his ear ventured, "Bad time?"
Ronan's eyebrows went up. "Kit. If you're calling to see if I'm still alive and survived the Star Wars bedspread, I'm happy to report no long-term physical or mental scarring."
Kit snorted. "Actually, I was calling about Mars."
"Has it done something?" Ronan asked, with mild curiosity. Mars had been Kit's pet project before the Pullulus and the Hesper had interrupted him, Ronan gathered, and now that those considerations were dealt with, Kit was back at it.
"Not yet," Kit admitted. "But it looks like it's becoming higher priority; there's a good chance there was, or is, life there somewhere -- a good enough chance that Mamvish flagged it as a potential project. So it's generating a lot of interest."
Ronan waited. After a few moments he'd established that it wasn't generating any interest in him. The thing of it was, nothing was doing much to generate interest in him, and this was the first event in a week that had felt anything like a gentle elbow-nudge from the Powers telling Ronan to get off his arse and behave like a wizard. "Sure," Ronan said, "and what's it to do with me?"
"Right now it looks like there might be some kind of message-in-a-bottle wizardry up there somewhere," Kit explained, with barely controlled enthusiasm. "Finder teams are organizing -- two wizards, sometimes three. Nita says she'd be happy to help, but she's already in the middle of a couple projects, and the one with S'reee sounds important, so I thought ..."
"You'd fob the Martian project off on unsuspecting innocents?" Ronan suggested.
"Yeah," Kit said, momentarily sheepish. "And we've done good work together recently, so you were my first thought."
"It's nice to feel wanted," Ronan said. He knew he wasn't putting on a very good show, but the whole mysterious planet of Mars and Kit's boundless geeky enthusiasm for it weren't enough to fill the hollowness in Ronan. It was all very touching that Kit and the Powers had thought of him in his time of need, but Ronan could still remember with vivid clarity a moment in the cave on Rashah when Kit had demanded "What --?" and, at the last second, changed the question to something innocuous; Ronan had still heard, as clear as though Kit had said it aloud, clearer, What good are you without Him? That was indeed the question. And however well-intentioned Kit was now, their relationship had more complications than could be summed up with 'work well together'.
Whether Kit sensed any of this, Ronan couldn't be sure. He just said, "If you're not busy, obviously. But I thought it'd be fun. And Darryl says he might be into it."
For the first time in the conversation, Ronan felt a flash of genuine interest. He remembered Darryl McAllister from their brief meeting on the Moon: Darryl was just a kid, possessed of sharp, interesting features and the raw power that came with being an eleven-year-old wizard, and all of that would have been entirely unmemorable except that Ronan had taken one look at him and known he was looking at an abdal. The fierce goodness Darryl was imbued with, less precise and searing than the Spear of Light but otherwise very much like, would have been enough -- but Ronan had also been frozen for a moment with pure joyful triumph, the Power inside him laughing to see such a young Pillar there to defend the Earth.
And now Darryl was being placed in his way again.
Ronan blew out a soft breath and finished off his cup of tea. "I'm not busy," he said. "When does the extraterrestrial scavenger hunt begin?"
"Later today, on Elysium Mons," Kit said, "just to get a feel for the terrain. UTC 13:00, let's say."
That was enough time for all of them to finish breakfast. "Right," Ronan said. "I'll arrange transport."
"Sure," Kit said, "see you then," and cut the connection. Ronan shook his head to rebalance his hearing, wizardly calls being more aurally disorienting than a nonwizardly mobile connection. He finished his toast, considering whether he should go to Doris to ask for some sort of all-purpose commuting transit spell. If things went Kit's way, it sounded like Ronan would be bouncing to Mars and back like a cosmic yo-yo, and it would play hell with the overlays if he wasn't careful. Besides, a visit with Doris would do him a world of good. She was too smart to hover, but she had expressed the concern proper to a Senior after hearing about Ronan's near-death and the release of the Champion. Seeing Ronan going about normal wizardly business and working well with others would only reassure her.
It was the work of an hour to take the bus over, have another cup of tea, and talk Doris into the Martian project. To Ronan's mild surprise, he was able to sound genuinely interested in the project when he explained it to Doris. He wasn't at Kit levels of enthusiasm, but unless he went totally bonkers and started memorizing the names of Mars' craters, he would never match Kit's levels of enthusiasm.
Doris seemed impressed with Mamvish's interest in the project, and pleased to see Ronan working again. She gave him the go-ahead, "But after a half-dozen transits, check back in with me. If the project's still relevant to you, we'll get a special dispensation, but otherwise I don't want to strain the overlays for you to go off on some boys' own adventure."
Ronan didn't roll his eyes, because Doris was his Senior. Instead he thanked her for the tea, promised to check in, and did the transit to Mars from a safe space laid out in Doris' back garden.
When he arrived, he was alone; the others would probably be arriving within the next quarter-hour. Ronan took a couple of deep breaths, acclimating after the disorientation of being torn from one planetary orbit to another, before turning to inspect the terrain around him. It was early morning here, the scattered rocks on the khaki-and-rust ground throwing long sharp shadows that stretched away down the slope of Elysium Mons and toward the plateau on the horizon. Ronan folded down onto a larger rock, glad he'd thought to shrug into a leather jacket before leaving: even with a force field up, it was late-autumn cold here, and Mars had little atmosphere to speak of in which to trap heat. Except for the soft hissing of dust in the wind outside his air bubble, this world was perfectly silent.
Empty, Ronan thought. There came gradually into his head the knowledge that he was very accurate in this assessment: Mars' kernel had been absent, or missing, or in some other way without location, for some few million years. The planet still worked -- there had been no orbital decay, and it still obeyed all the physical laws that kept it functioning as a celestial body -- but it was, in the most important way, empty. Hollow.
Ronan was reminded again that the Powers could be right bastards when it suited them.
He almost got up and went back home right then, never mind that he'd have to explain to both Kit and Doris that Mars was freaking him out a wee bit. Oddly, it wasn't the thought of being forced to make this admission that stopped him. It was the discovery that the universe was giving him a pointed metaphor, followed up by ... nothing. Not one bleeding thing. Ronan had no fury left, none of the flaring anger that had been his, like a prickly second skin, for as long as he could remember. And there was nothing to replace it, not even resignation.
"Hey," Ronan said, placing a hand flat on the rock where he'd settled. "What's the report?"
The rock took a moment to reply. Heat, it said finally. Cold. And the other wizard, lately. It probably meant Kit. It wasn't a very talkative rock, but then, its history was long and slow and without incident. It wasn't soaked in wizardry and constant creation the way Irish rocks were. He patted it once more and looked up, watching Deimos come up over the Martian horizon to begin its swift arc across the sky.
When it was perhaps a sixth of the way through its circuit, there was a quick pop of outrushing air to Ronan's left; when he looked over, Darryl was standing there, gazing around him with bright curiosity. He shot Ronan a grin. "Hey."
"Hallo yourself," Ronan said, standing and attempting, rather futilely, to brush Mars dust from the seat of his trousers. "So Kit's roped you into this too."
"I dunno about roped," Darryl said. "I'm down with it. I mean, the possibility of discovering a new species is pretty cool."
"Sure," Ronan agreed absently. Most of his concentration was taken up with figuring out why he suddenly felt much more awake, why Mars' desolation seemed much less desolate. Ronan supposed it was knowing that, with Darryl here, he wasn't the only living thing on this rock. But no, it was specific to Darryl. He was a direct conduit of the One, and that presence was so like another that for an illusory moment Ronan had felt normal again.
'Normal' was now the state in which Ronan competitively cohabited with a Power so close to the One it had terrified him. Normal was now the state in which he fecking envied Darryl.
Kit, or maybe some listening Power, chose to intervene before Ronan could get properly disgusted with himself. Appearing in an outrush of air, Kit was dressed for hiking and brimming with ideas. They all exchanged pleasantries, and then Kit was off, eagerly brainstorming locator spells. Ronan did have some potentially useful ideas to contribute, mostly because all of their skill sets were so different: Darryl had raw power and visual creativity; Kit had a few tricks he'd picked up from his no-longer-dog Ponch, and some smart, utilitarian search routines; Ronan likewise had a few tricks he'd picked up from the Champion, and some notions for how they might write workarounds so the missing kernel wouldn't be a handicap.
After they'd been at it for an hour, they had most of a preliminary spell written up. Ronan had to hand it to Kit: he'd put together a good team. They stood around the sketched diagram Kit had inscribed in the dust, and spoke their locator spell, customized to fit these particular circumstances. The quiet landscape grew quieter, the universe lowering in to listen to them while the spell caught hold, and Ronan's hands curled into slow fists of shaking effort. At the end of the spell, he was the only one who seemed out of breath.
"If it's going to get anything, we'll have the results by this time tomorrow," Kit said, looking pleased. He grinned at Darryl and Ronan. "I guess that's our official wrap for today. You guys want to go hiking for a bit? The views are great."
"I shouldn't," Darryl said, his grin in return a little apologetic. "My folks still don't know I like to hang on Mars sometimes, and I don't want to deal with a freak-out any time soon. Besides, I got homework."
"No problem, Big D," Kit said. "Ronan?"
Ronan could just imagine how a nice Mars-walk with Kit would go. Either Kit would talk his ear off with Martian trivia, or he'd try to make friendly personal conversation. Ronan would rather face the Lone Power any day of the week. "I think I'll pass," he said. "You have fun looking at craters, though."
"I will," Kit said with good-natured dignity. "Talk with you guys in conference, then. Dai."
"Dai," Ronan and Darryl echoed. They watched Kit take off at a bouncing gate in Mars' lower gravity. Darryl turned to Ronan. "Want a lift back?" he asked. "It takes pretty much no energy. I got this cool co-location trick."
It would be easier than messing with the overlays, anyway. "Fine," Ronan said.
"Great," Darryl said. He reached out and took Ronan's hand. Before Ronan could protest this, there was a moment of darkness, and they reappeared in the bright sunlight of morning American suburbia. Ronan shook off Darryl's hand and looked around critically. They were standing in a neat little back yard, cut off from the street; the white clapboard house sharing the lawn was presumably Darryl's.
"Thanks for the lift," Ronan said shortly.
"No problem," Darryl said. Ronan turned away, looking for a good patch of lawn from which to transport, and Darryl added, "Hey, are you busy today or would you be up for another consultation?"
Ronan froze, and slowly turned back to Darryl. Darryl had his hands shoved nonchalantly in his pockets and a hopeful, expectant look on his face, like an adorable eleven-year-old puppy. Conniving, even; he'd told Kit he had homework, apparently in order to get Ronan alone.
The last thing Ronan wanted to do was spend time alone with this kid. He had his Leaving Cert to study for and a wizardly project in the works; no one would fault him for turning Darryl down. He could be home and hollow and safe.
"Make your pitch quick, then," Ronan said. "My time's valuable, you know."
Darryl grinned. "Cool," he said. "Come inside! We'll have lunch and I'll tell you."
"Didn't you just have breakfast?" Ronan asked, following Darryl into the house. It was tidy and welcoming, with an open downstairs floor plan and bright paintings on the walls. Ronan almost tripped over a skateboard in the kitchen.
"Sorry about that," Darryl said over his shoulder. He went to rummage around in the refrigerator. "And it's lunchtime, so we get lunch." He straightened with a carton of orange juice and a wounded look. "I'm a growing boy."
The kid was so little that this was obviously true, so Ronan shrugged and went to help him find food. They ended up with sandwiches, Darryl's a little sloppy, and sat down together at the kitchen table. Darryl ate with one hand and scrolled through his WizPod with another, frowning absently while he looked for the consultation data. "Okay," he said at length. "Got it."
Ronan leaned over, examining the half-transparent schematic that unfolded from the Pod. For a moment it was impossible to understand, so alien were the descriptive parameters, but Ronan kept reading, and after a moment he worked out what he was looking at: the technical readouts for half a dozen alternate universes, weirdly self-contained. "Whose worlds are these?" he asked.
"Ponch's," Darryl said.
That explained the power readings to size ratio of those universes. Of course Ronan had known that Kit's dog was creating universes from nothing in order to get around all the technical difficulties attendant to more conventional wizardly transport through spacetime, but he'd never bothered to wonder what happened to those universes once Ponch was done with them. Ronan considered a flippant comment regarding squirrels, but instead he whistled softly between his teeth. "And you've come to me with this instead of Kit because ...?"
"Kit's obsessed with this Mars thing," Darryl said. "I'd say he's already booked. And -- man, he just lost someone really important to him. I'm not gonna ask him to clean up after his dog's old universes, you know? It'd be like rubbing it in."
Ronan nodded. He knew the feeling. He looked back over the Pod's schematics, already calculating ways to dismantle or neutralize the universes before anything nasty thought about moving in. It was going to require a lot of raw power -- Darryl's -- and someone around to act as a failsafe. Him. Ronan started to feel a wee bit shaky. But a mess of empty universes left by their frantic search for the Hesper was undeniably his to clean up.
He could have it done by himself in a jiffy if the Champion was still around.
"What do you know about kernels?" Ronan asked.
"A bit," Darryl said, shrugging. "I've only ever worked with mine." He saw Ronan's raised eyebrows and responded with an impish grin that lit his small face. "I locked up my autism with the Lone One."
"Ah," Ronan said. He didn't know exactly what was showing on his face then, apart from surprise, but Darryl's grin only spread wider, and Ronan guessed that he'd successfully given pity a miss. "That must've given It a turn."
"You know it." Darryl reached out to retrieve his WizPod, the half-transparent schematic folding neatly in on itself. "Anyway, yeah, I can do kernel work. I'm not too hot on writing those places back out of existence, but I was thinking maybe we could seed them, make them into, what are they called, those practice kernel rooms."
"Aschetic universes," Ronan said. He thought again of those power ratings. "The places Ponch created are some heavy stuff." But he didn't like the idea of writing those places back out of existence, either, nor of wasting that much energy. What he liked even less was the division of Darryl's energy between Mars and places much further than simply off-planet. Ronan knew better than to tell Darryl that someone else had to take the job, though, not when he was obviously qualified and interested. The sooner they figured this out, the sooner Darryl would be safe. "Do you think there might be another way to seed them?" Ronan asked. "Incorporate them into existing universes?"
"I did think of that," Darryl said, pulling up a new set of readings. "Most of 'em are little, relatively speaking; if you think they shouldn't be practice universes, we can probably make them redundant Crossings modules, and the Rirhait can keep an eye on them." He chewed absently at his lip. "Okay, I bet I need permission for that. What do you say I talk to the Stationmaster, and get my homework done and get a good night's sleep and all that stuff, and we'll see how many universes we can seed tomorrow. Uh, unless you have church or something."
"No, Sundays are free," Ronan said. The homework talk was giving him horrifying visions of all the revising he had to do, so he agreed to Darryl's whole plan, insisted on helping clean up the remains of the sandwiches, and went on his merry way.
Standing next to his own house again, Ronan let his sense of the overlays settle in around him. The world was crowded here. Safe.
Far into the night he went over in his mind everything he knew about kernels. Though there had never been much call for him to learn about them in the normal course of his wizardry, the Champion's vast knowledge of the universe was often filtered down to Ronan's experience, and like a good Irish wizard, he'd committed it all to memory. A working understanding of kernel theory was one of those relics in his head. Ronan thought and thought until he was left with a bastard of a headache. It all seemed inextricably linked, Nita's discovery of the Champion and her association with Kit and his assistance during Darryl's Ordeal and their collective instrumentality in waking the Hesper and Ronan's loss and Ponch's universes and Mars' missing kernel.
All is done for each, Ronan thought, and wasn't reassured.
They started the next day in what Darryl claimed was one of the simplest universes. It was dark and small and self-contained, like a black box theatre; Ronan didn't recognize it, but when he asked, Darryl just said, "Oh, it's how I'm conceiving it."
Ronan didn't argue with this, just as he hadn't argued when they'd arrived in Ponch's little universe by the simple expediency of Darryl transporting them there. He wasn't about to point out that this was the opposite of normal. Actually, it made a twisty sort of sense that a direct conduit of the One could easily access and manipulate a space created by a waking avatar of the One. It was just as well that Ronan was used to having the Powers That Be making Themselves at home and a general nuisance around him, or the whole thing might have made him a tad nervous.
The kernel was tucked into what Darryl had conceived of as the universe's otherspace. He drew it out, a small star-bright tangle of energy that lit Darryl's face from below, making him look angelic and strange. Ronan clenched his hands into fists against his thighs and leaned in, looking doubtfully over the complicated loops and snarls caught between Darryl's small hands, and was unsurprised to discover that he knew what every part described. "You need to --" he started.
"Yeah, I see it," Darryl said, reaching for exactly the right strand, and began turning the kernel through his hands like some complicated cross between a Rubik's cube and a cat's cradle, fast as thought. Ronan stood very still, watching for mistakes, but Darryl was flawless, not so much rewriting the kernel as recreating it.
When he was done, some dreamtime later that could have been seconds or hours, Darryl knelt down and transcribed a quick glowing transport circle on the dark ground with his finger. "If I did it right, we'll come out at the Crossings," he said.
"You did it right," Ronan said, adding his name. As best he knew, Darryl had rendered this universe inert and seeded it as a redundant Crossings module, safe for most humanoid beings to transport into and get right back out of none the worse for wear. He wasn't much fussed about where they might end up, but he'd taken on abdal-sitting responsibilities and it would be awkward if he didn't get Darryl home in one piece. "Right, go."
A moment later he was blinking under the white-light ceiling of a Crossings day. They were in a relatively low-traffic section of the station, but around them the concourse bustled with beings from all over the galaxy. Ronan and Darryl stepped off the transport pad together when it stopped glowing active; Ronan glanced sideways, and saw that, while Darryl didn't have the wide-eyed look of a tourist seeing the Crossings for the first time, he didn't have the calm veteran look of someone walking through a normal airport, either. Darryl, in fact, looked quietly uncomfortable.
Too far out of orbit, Ronan thought, followed by, Or maybe he still doesn't like being in crowds. "Right," he said. "Home?"
"Yeah," Darryl agreed, taking a deep breath. "Okay, let's go."
He took Ronan's hand. They appeared in Darryl's back yard, already a familiar sight. It was late evening. Ronan bit back a curse; he was going to be hellishly jetlagged just in time for school in the morning. More importantly, though, Darryl was swaying a little on his feet. Rather than letting go of Darryl's hand, Ronan dragged Darryl up to the door of his house, and inside, where there was presumably more food.
Too late, he registered that the house lights were on, and the door unlocked. Ronan froze in the kitchen doorway, still holding tight to Darryl, and looked back helplessly at the surprised faces of Darryl's parents, staring at him from the kitchen table. Ronan wasn't sure how this looked -- Darryl exhausted from the kernel manipulation and the transport, and the sheer incongruity of someone five years older than their son standing in their kitchen, in a black leather jacket, no less -- but he figured it couldn't be good.
"Hey," Darryl said.
"Hey, honey," Mrs. McAllister said faintly. "What's going on?"
"Project," Darryl said brightly. "Ronan was helping me. What's for dinner?"
"There's roast chicken," Mrs. McAllister said.
Ronan stepped forward. "Uh, hi. Ronan Nolan."
Some complicated exchange of expressions was taking place between Darryl and his mum. Ronan deliberately didn't look, and instead offered his hand to Mr. McAllister, putting on his best non-threatening face. He was probably past hope of actually being acceptable to the parents of an eleven-year-old, but he could at least put on a good show. To his relief, Mr. McAllister shook his offered hand bemusedly, and Ronan was shunted off to Mrs. McAllister, who did the same.
"Could Ronan stay for dinner?" Darryl asked.
"No --" Ronan started, mortified.
"Of course," Mrs. McAllister interjected. "Pull up a chair, Ronan."
Ah, reverse psychology. It wasn't usually in a wizard's toolbox, and Ronan had forgotten that it sometimes worked even if you didn't want it to. He tried a smile and sat down on the chair that Mr. McAllister dragged out for him.
What followed should have been awful. Ronan was never good with parents. And wizards were careful about lies; he hadn't been briefed on what Darryl had told his folks. Sure enough, as soon as they'd sat down and Mr. McAllister had filled their plates, Mrs. McAllister said, "So -- what sort of project, boys?"
Darryl and Ronan looked at each other. "Hacking," Ronan said. Darryl closed his eyes, and Ronan couldn't tell if it was relief or mortification.
"I gather it's nothing illegal," Mr. McAllister said.
"Dad's in the software business," Darryl added softly.
"Ah." Ronan felt lighter. He'd done a bit with computers at school, and could talk a good game if he had to. "It was a security hack, Mr. McAllister, to keep bugs out of the software."
"Huh." Mr. McAllister looked less foreboding.
"So what is it you do?" Ronan added. Parents he was no good at, but shop talk he could do. It worked a treat, too. He listened to technical jargon from Darryl's dad, and then funny office stories from Darryl's mum. He answered their questions about what it was like to live in Ireland with better grace than usual, because after all in this particular case he was the blow-in and they weren't questioning him on his own turf. He heard stories about Darryl's new school, everyday things that made Darryl scowl with good-natured annoyance and gave Ronan a much more specific timeline for the probable end of the autism. Both Darryl's parents forgot entirely about questioning Ronan's presence. That would have been victory enough, but there was something about this dinner, which was full of laughter and the McAllisters' obvious delight in their son's presence, that made the whole thing one of the best times Ronan had had in a while.
There was even apple cobbler for dessert.
After, Darryl made a show of walking Ronan to the front door, helping him escape from the flurry of goodbyes. Once they were out of earshot, Ronan turned to Darryl, staring. He didn't quite know what to ask, but it turned out he didn't have to. Darryl's mouth quirked up into a smile. "They still haven't gotten over having me back," he said, with a funny little twist to the inflection, almost but not quite like he was putting quotes around the final three words.
Ronan supposed that miracle autism cures probably did merit apple cobbler. "So you're milking it for all it's worth."
"Yep," Darryl said cheerfully. "It makes them happy."
Ronan hesitated. "What about you?"
For a moment Darryl wouldn't meet Ronan's eyes. "It's still hard sometimes," he said. "Having other people around. It's cool on the physical level, on the medical level, that's all good." He shrugged and looked back up. His face was transformed with sudden defiant joy, hitting Ronan like a body-blow of light. "I chose this. And sometimes losing something is worth celebrating."
"Yeah," Ronan said in a breath. It was all he could manage.
"So," Darryl said, "it looks like the kernel stuff is pretty time-consuming. We'll have to limit it to weekends. Next Friday, maybe?"
Ronan rolled his eyes. "I do have a social life outside you lot of Yanks. Make it Saturday."
"Saturday it is," Darryl said. He held out a fist, the nonverbal equivalent of dai stihó. Ronan quirked a smile and bumped it with his own.
"Dai," he said, and went out into the warm evening.
In Ronan's Irish Literature class that week they were covering the Cath Maige Tuired. There was some misguided notion among the teachers that everyone in class didn't already know about the Tuatha Dé Danann, about the Fomori and Balor, just from childhood osmosis. The general drift of the topic seemed to be historical contexts, and Ronan doodled his way through class, the Spear of Light leaning propped against the edges of his notebook pages in ink.
Kit reported on Monday that their locator spell hadn't picked anything up, but that he'd thought of a modification to the routine that might get better results. Darryl had already approved the change, and it sounded good to Ronan, so he gave the go-ahead. For the rest of the week all was quiet on the wizardly front, and Ronan did normal teenage things. He went to classes, escaped into town with his mates for lunch hour, trudged home the long way on his lonesome, going over lessons in his head. Ronan still ruled the lunchtime conversation, putting forth his opinions and having them duly listened to, but there was a strange, subtle shift to the atmosphere. By the end of the week Ronan had a name for it: he was no longer in charge. The true weirdness was that he did not mind. His fierce conviction had gone mellow, and no one stammered and backed down when they spoke to him.
Still, a wizard incapable of oratory persuasion was no good at all. On Thursday evening Ronan ducked out of a jaunt into town, claiming the need to get a move-on with his work and enduring some good-natured mocking when he went on his way. Rather than going straight home, he ducked off the road through a gap in the hedge and ended up in a field, striding along until he came to a patch that was thin on overlays and thick with blackberry brambles. It would do well enough. Ronan crouched down near the tangle of plant life. The blackberry bush was growing well enough on its own, but Ronan set his fingertips lightly against a spindly thorned branch and murmured in the Speech, "You should make a hollow space just above your roots. The foxes that nest there will make your growing soil much richer than it is now."
The bush considered this. Blackberry plants were complicated, growing as they did in community thickets. Ronan waited, patient and still, and after a moment the bush rustled scratchy consent against the wind, and Ronan felt it starting to arch and turn, its growing patterns shifting. He got to his feet, brushed off his jeans, and headed off again towards home.
It was just as well that he'd done so. Ronan had barely said hello to his dad in passing and clomped upstairs when Darryl called.
Ronan froze on the landing. The spell waited patiently for Ronan to receive it. He went quickly into his room, shutting the door and flopping down on his bed. "It's not Saturday," he said by way of greeting.
"Yeah, I know," Darryl's voice responded. "Your social life can wait, okay? We have a situation here."
Darryl probably watched too much daytime telly. Ronan snorted. "What situation?"
"I've been keeping an eye on our project universes," Darryl said. "And most of them are reading same as ever, but there's one that has some funny stuff going on. It had a big power surge around noon my time, and now a lot of the physical details are being changed around. I want to go check it out, but I figured I could use some backup."
"Sounds like," Ronan agreed. "Let me guess. The compromised universe is the one that used to have all the squirrels."
He could nearly hear the face Darryl made. "You got it. And I figured it might be a target, too. I was gonna get to it next, but I wanted to see if I could do kernel work okay on a simpler one."
"You did fine," Ronan said, only a little awkwardly, finding himself abruptly in the position of more senior wizard without any backing Power. Darryl took this in stride, though, so Ronan added, "Look, even if you can't mess about with it properly today, we should still know what we're dealing with. Up for some quick recon?"
"You bet," Darryl said. Without warning the connection was cut, and barely a second later, Darryl was standing in the middle of Ronan's room. He looked around interestedly at the band posters taped to the walls and the stacks of books sitting haphazardly on most of the available surfaces. His perusal of the room fell on Ronan, and he grinned. "I figured this would be quicker than you getting permission to come over to my place. The way I transport doesn't mess with the overlays."
"Of course not," Ronan said dryly.
"Wanna go to the squirrel universe from here or New York?"
"If you don't mess with the overlays, it makes no difference," Ronan pointed out. He got up and took Darryl's proffered hand.
They stepped forward into blackness, and then into a bright day full of ambient sunlight. Both of them squinted and blinked a little before looking around. It was the squirrel universe, sure enough, filled with green, shadow-dappled park lawns and towering trees. Ronan was sure that the crisscrossing bike paths were new, though. He stepped toward the nearest one, curiously, only to be yanked back by Darryl, who hadn't yet let go of his hand. Ronan glanced down at him irritably. "Are they evil bike paths?"
"No, they're just ... weird." Darryl frowned in concentration. "Let me just reconceive this place for a second."
"Sure," Ronan muttered. Darryl didn't speak, but the landscape around them wavered and dimmed, the illusion of a superfast twilight going down to the empty dark space like a black box theatre. In place of the bike paths were silver strings of faintly glowing Speech characters. Ronan and Darryl shuffled forward together to read the nearest one. Ronan let out a low whistle. "Bloody --"
The Speech phrase described a near-instantaneous mode of transportation attached to a locator spell, essentially a functional descriptor of the white squirrel trick Ponch had used to help them find the Hesper. The amount of power involved in this particular transport/location spell was literally astronomical, though, possibly because the query attached to the locator was an open-ended algorithm for another universe.
"Hang on," Darryl said, dragging Ronan to a different bike-path-turned-spell-phrase. He let out a long breath. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
Ronan shook his head, gobsmacked. The new transport/location spell was very similar to the other one they'd just seen, except that this algorithm queried a different universe. They went around together, picking their way among the various phrases, all of which had variations on the same spell-phrase. "Jesus," Ronan said. "Whose bright idea is it to turn a pocket universe into an interdimensional gating system?"
"Got me," Darryl said. Around them the blackness lightened back up into park and trees and crisscrossing bike paths, which looked strangely ominous now.
"Why'd you change it back?" Ronan asked, gesturing vaguely at their surroundings.
Darryl shrugged. "It's kind of fixed this way. Keeping it simple was giving me a headache." He turned in a slow circle, taking in the whole bizarre view. "Someone messed up their classics a bit." At Ronan's raised eyebrows, he grinned, the delight on his face making the whole situation seem less puzzling and serious. "You know, Narnia. The Wood Between the Worlds. Only in order to get to all the other universes, you jumped in pools. Kind of more straightforward than bike paths, I guess."
"Well, I for one am glad we're not tripping into pools every five minutes," Ronan said. "Speaking of, since time works differently in Narnia and you jetlagged me something awful last time we went messing about in Ponch's universes, I say we decide what to do back at my place."
"Sure," Darryl said. He took Ronan's hand and stepped forward.
Darryl frowned. He stepped forward again. The world wavered for a moment before solidifying stubbornly into the green park again, and Darryl went ashen, his hand tightening convulsively in Ronan's. "Uh," he said. "We may have a problem."
"No kidding." Ronan considered. "Would conventional transport work?"
"Maybe?" Darryl said, with deep uncertainty. "I wouldn't risk it, though. I mean, we got about a billion universe directories written up all around us --"
"-- and neither of us have the power ratings for a gating back to our home universe without paying a hefty price," Ronan finished for him. His heart was beginning to pound with adrenaline that didn't know the difference between excitement and fear. "Right. So, we're out of ambit for a few hours. No problem. Can you find the kernel? Leaving aside what to do about this place, maybe you can adjust the parameters enough to get us home, and we'll have a go at it another day."
"Okay," Darryl said. His eyes were a bit wide, with what looked like astonishment more than anything else. The world had never hit him back before, not when he pushed it this way. Ronan spared a bit of sympathy; after all, people were easy and magical overlays were difficult, but for Darryl it had always been the other way around.
Play to your strengths, Ronan thought, and squeezed Darryl's hand lightly. "Good, then. What are you waiting for?"
"Right." Darryl squeezed his eyes shut in concentration. He began drifting forward. Ronan steered him gently away from the bike path, and Darryl took the hint. Instead of opening his eyes, he went onwards blind -- conceiving this space the way he wanted it, Ronan guessed, without expending the effort to physically change it. He carefully moved Darryl out of the way of trees and bike paths. They went on this way for some time, until Darryl began heading unerringly towards what was clearly the largest tree in the whole place, an oak the size of a redwood.
Darryl shuffled forward until his hands fetched up against the tree. He held still for a moment, then carefully sank his hands right into the wood of the tree trunk, and just as carefully pulled out the glowing tangle of the kernel. One of his eyes cautiously opened, followed by the other, and he broke into a grin. "Okay, progress."
Ronan shrugged a shoulder in agreement. Darryl settled himself cross-legged at the base of the tree, so Ronan sat down next to him, keeping a weather eye out for anything else that might be hanging around and wanting to get its appendages on the kernel. For the moment, though, they seemed to be alone. "So can you get us out?"
"Working on it," Darryl said absently. Ronan looked over, and swallowed a groan of dismay; this kernel was a hell of a lot more complex and tangled than the last one. Darryl didn't look intimidated, though, just focused, so Ronan settled back against the tree and resigned himself to passing the time by reviewing all the offensive and defensive spells he had tucked in ready memory.
He was interrupted by a hiss of annoyed breath from Darryl. "Okay, I hate to say it, but this is gonna be really freaking hard."
"Want to be more specific?" Ronan asked, sitting up straighter.
"Everything's connected," Darryl said, making a face down at the kernel glowing in his hands. "I mean, obviously, but in this case it looks like I'll have to override all the stuff that got changed in the first place."
"That means now's the time to talk about whether we should, then," Ronan said, because someone had to. "Personal safety aside, we don't know who started making these changes."
"No," Darryl said, "but I have a guess." The quiet anger in his voice told Ronan that their guesses were the same. He nodded. Darryl tossed the kernel lightly between his hands. It made a soft noise like a beanbag. "So I think we're going to be here for a while, while I untangle this stuff. Maybe if I can hook it up as a Crossings redundancy this place could end up being a pretty cool, cost-effective worldgating alternate, but right now it's just a trap."
Ronan nodded. "That about covers it. How can I help?"
"Sleep," Darryl said.
Ronan's eyebrows went up. "Sleep?"
"Yeah." Darryl quirked a smile. "Cos I'm not going to get all of this done in one session, and someone's gotta guard the kernel while I get my beauty sleep. Anyway, you were the one complaining about jetlag."
This was true. More than that, it was stupidly good to hear Darryl taking Ronan's protection for granted, without any history between them. Ronan suddenly remembered that Darryl had never even been given the full context for his symbiosis with the Champion. For all Darryl knew, Ronan was a lot more than just a convenient vessel for Spear-Throwing and carrying the messenger. It wrenched something light and loose in Ronan's chest, and for the first time it felt more like freedom than freefall.
"Fine," he said, settling back down against the tree. "Just wake me the hot second you get tired."
"I will," Darryl said.
Ronan dreamed he was at school. His Irish Lit teacher had called on him to translate a passage of the Cath Maige Tuired, and Ronan was trying, but the words in his book kept slipping between Irish and the Speech, transliterated into graceful curves or the blocky no-nonsense Roman alphabet. "'Then the chiefs of the Tuatha Dé Danann were gathered round Lugh'," Ronan read. "'And he asked his -- his Power,' no, 'his Maker --'"
The class laughed. Ronan seethed. There, there it was, all the anger, the frustration and rage that made him snap and scowl, that allowed him to take in the Sea at thirteen with nothing but raw emotion to back him. Ronan bared his teeth at the laughing children and they subsided, stumbling into intimidation the way they were supposed to, because he was Ronan Nolan, with a Power inside him to fight against and to give him fearful glory.
Raising his chin, Ronan kept reading, the Speech and the Irish cooperating now, sliding easily into English off his tongue. "'And he asked his Maker what power he would be given. 'Not hard to say,' his Maker said. 'Though the men of Erin bide in the battle to the end of Eternity, for every spear that parts from its shaft, or sword that shall break therein, I will forge them just as they were before, so that all things shall be preserved exactly as is good in My sight'.'"
"Good," Ronan's teacher said, smiling across the wide room at him with Balor's leer and eyes like starless sky, and just like that Ronan was jolted into nightmare. He drew in a shocked breath, and then stood there gasping and clutching at the wound in his chest, which spilled blood, shining darkly against his hands. He realized then that the Champion hadn't come back. Ronan was nothing.
The next moment he was jerking awake, trying to breathe around the tightness in his chest with Darryl's concerned face hovering above him. "You okay, man?"
Ronan squeezed his eyes shut. After a minute he trusted himself to open them again without doing something embarrassing like completely flipping out. "Fine," he said. "Bad dream." He levered himself up to sitting and looked around. The park was still bright with ambient noon light, but the bike paths seemed somewhat thinner on the ground. "Looks like you've been busy."
"Uh-huh." Darryl yawned hugely. "I think I've taken care of about half of them. The first few took a lot longer, but I've got the hang of it now, so when I wake up it probably won't take long. Oh, and if you get hungry ..." He pointed past Ronan's shoulder. Ronan turned and discovered that a young pear tree had done a few years' worth of growth while he'd been sleeping.
"Nice," he said, getting a little stiffly to his feet and plucking a pear. He settled back down and carefully accepted the kernel with his free hand when Darryl handed it over. The kernel tingled very gently, not at all unpleasant. "All right, get that beauty sleep of yours."
Darryl gave him a little salute and sprawled out in the grass. In a minute, he was out and snoring softly.
Ronan drew his knees up to his chest and ate the pear. By then his breathing was returned to normal, and the tightness in his chest gradually eased. He was guilty of looking down to check, but of course his shirt was free of blood.
When Ronan was done eating, he tossed the core aside and settled in to examine the kernel. It was still alarmingly complex, but eventually Ronan began to see what Darryl had been up to, carefully rewriting the transport/location spells into redundancy, looping them back in on themselves so that their end directory was back in this pocket universe. It was neatly done, and Ronan was impressed despite himself.
He was so preoccupied with the intricacies of Darryl's rewrites that he didn't sense someone approaching until they'd practically reached the tree. Ronan's head snapped up, the words of a shield spell automatically tumbling out of his mouth. The approaching figure stopped short just outside the shield's range. The spell was transparent, permeable to sound, and, Ronan had found, all the more effective for it. He rose to his knees, shuffling closer to Darryl and holding the kernel close against him, and examined the new arrival.
It was a handsome man, in his thirties or so, with red hair and a dark business suit -- in short, exactly the sort of person who would be perfectly in place strolling through this park on his lunch break. The man peered in at Ronan and smiled smoothly, with a dimple at the corner of his mouth and eyes like black holes.
Ronan started to have trouble breathing again. He recognized It, of course. He'd seen It as a giant bug and a hulking monster and pure elemental rage, but he'd seen It like this, too, cloaked in inky night and triumph in that last moment before Ronan had thrown the Spear. Now It was just standing there, apparently waiting on Ronan, so Ronan said, through gritted teeth and foregoing practically every formality, "Greetings and defiance, you bastard."
It was generally regarded as bad form for wizards to be rude to the Lone Power. Something about how just because It had brought entropy and the attendant suffering into the world, that didn't mean one should forego common courtesy. Ronan didn't give a damn.
Outside Ronan's shield, the Lone Power laughed a soft cold laugh full of dark amusement. "Honesty," It said. "Very refreshing."
"Eff off," Ronan told It.
It tsked. "I would," It said, "but you have something that I want." For a moment Its eyes lingered on the sleeping Darryl before snapping back to Ronan. "You two have interrupted a project of Mine. You're undoing all My hard work. It won't do."
"Sorry," Ronan said. "Oh, wait, no I'm not. I'd ask what Your eventual plan is for this place, but the thing of it is, it's not Yours and I don't really care, as long as it doesn't get done. And it won't."
"Your optimism is heartwarming," the Lone One told him. "In fact, it sounds very much like bravado. How long do you think that pitiful defense will hold?"
Not taking his eyes off the Lone One, Ronan reached down into the kernel, finding strands by feel, and gently tweaked the power feed, solidifying the shield until a nuclear warhead could have detonated on it without breaking through, and probably without making Ronan pass out from the strain. He gave the Lone Power a quick smile. It gazed back with cold fury.
"Parlor tricks," It said.
"Maybe," Ronan said. "But I feel safer."
It laughed, soft and mirthless. "Just the sort of naiveté I would expect from someone who has spent years cowering behind My Brother."
"You leave Him out of this," Ronan said with reflexive fury, and winced inwardly at the slow triumphant curl of the Lone Power's smile as It sensed a hit. The worst of it was, Ronan was really at a loss. He was used to fighting the Lone One with grandstanding and sheer power, the strategy of a boy allied with the One's Champion. Here, now, Ronan was crouched behind a defensive shield -- an impressive shield, no doubt, but one that was ultimately no better than a fortress under siege -- protecting a kernel and an abdal, with no plan, no weapons, no backup. Damn.
"I leave Him out of this?" the Lone Power said softly. "Ronan. Didn't He leave you out? You gave your life, and He abandoned you. What good are you without Him?"
Ronan clenched his teeth. He said nothing, because it was better than the alternative.
"Now," the Lone Power went on, inexorable, "I'll get straight to the heart of the matter. You are a vessel, used and cast aside when They no longer needed you. I understand what that's like. You are also weaponless here, without allies and with a great vulnerability in that boy lying next to you. So far you've done nothing to anger Me. If you give Me that kernel and let Me do as I will with this little world, I will let you go home. Both of you."
It was so softly persuasive. Ronan shuddered. "What," he said, "You think You can fool me just because You're wearing a pretty face? My memory's too good for that trick to work. I don't care if all Your roads lead to -- to innocent football matches. You're not getting Darryl that easily, nor me."
It laughed again. "The noble warrior to the bitter end, Ronan Nolan! Where is your Spear? Where is your fire? Speak to me in your own voice, if you have one."
Ronan choked on fury, old and familiar, and on something new. Despair. He'd never known what despair felt like before. He'd felt terrified and trapped and angry before facing Balor, and he'd been terrified again and frantic with calculation when he'd stood before the Lone Power at the end of all wizardry, but there was always hope, always battle and that moment of surrender to the Champion.
There was no one here now but Ronan.
"I won't," Ronan said. He meant it as a refusal to give in even when all other words failed, but it sounded more like a confession. Ronan Nolan has no voice.
The Lone One knelt down, face to face with Ronan on the other side of his shield. "I could give it back," It murmured. "The sense of purpose. Starsteel for your weapon. Only give in."
Ronan recoiled. "No," he said, a whisper of horror. It wasn't like that. He wasn't only an instrument. He'd thought so once, and fought the Champion with everything he had, but every time he'd let the spear go, every time it had hummed blood-hot in his hand, he had stayed himself, consumed with purpose and rejoicing in the fierce delighted laughter from the Other in his head. The Lone One offered ashes.
"You will say yes," the Lone Power said. "Not today, perhaps, but even if you survive, you will come to Me one day. You need what I'm offering."
"No," Ronan said again.
There was a rustle in the grass, and Darryl sat up. Ronan and the Lone Power turned to him, Ronan with horror and the Lone One with hungry anticipation on Its face. Darryl glanced for a moment at Ronan, with a flicker of concern, before turning to the Lone One. "Is there time for a rebuttal?" he asked brightly, sounding much too alert to have only just woken. He didn't wait for an answer. "Of course there's time! Okay, where do you want to start, Ronan?"
"What?" Ronan asked, stupid with the sudden flash of blinding fear for Darryl.
"Well, It just said a lot of dumb things," Darryl said conversationally, not looking away from It. "How about we start with the thing where you're apparently no good without the flashy passenger you had for a while. Yeah, I got something to say about that. Ronan's lots of good without no one but himself. He listens, he says smart stuff, he cracks me up, and he's a real good wizard on top of it."
"Touching," the Lone One murmured.
It was going to say more. Driven by desperation, Ronan blurted, "And I don't need that Spear, either, or anyone else's flashy weapons. I can make my own."
"That's right!" Darryl said, popping up to his feet. He spared a glance for Ronan. "Hey, if any of 'em are flashy like the Spear, you have got to show them to me."
"I will," Ronan said, standing too and keeping his eyes on the Lone Power. It rose with Ronan without seeming to get to Its feet. In fact, It didn't have feet anymore, just that cloak of darkness wrapping around It.
"But I'm serious, man," Darryl said out of the side of his mouth. "Don't you let That One talk you into an identity crisis. You're cool with or without that Power."
"Right," Ronan agreed.
Darryl looked over sharply, actually focusing on Ronan above the cloud of darkness gathering outside. "Oh no," he said. "You can't buy it. It was using something you've already got going on? Listen, okay? Listen real good."
"Listening," Ronan said, one eye on the looming Lone Power. The kernel crackled softly in his hands.
"You are not just a vessel," Darryl said, soft and serious. "You were you before you knew you had anyone hitching a ride, and you're you now, and -- I'm just going out on a limb here, since what I got to go on is what I know about you and what the manual said about what went down with the Hesper -- you were definitely you when you let Him go to save the universe. You know that."
Ronan gazed down into the small ardent face looking so intently into his, and remembered: this kid chose to give up something too. This kid is the closest you're likely to get to the Powers again, and he thinks you're great.
Ronan smiled, sudden and bright and fierce. "I know," he said.
In the next moment, he was knocked to his knees by a shattering blow.
His shield held, but for a moment dark spots danced before his eyes. It can hold out against a nuclear warhead, I said? I'm so glad we're testing this theory!
The Lone Power, towering in Its darkness, rained another bolt down on the shield. Ronan cried out, pitching forward, and Darryl caught him. "I got you, I got you," he said. "Ronan, buddy, where's the kernel?"
Ronan held it up with a shaking hand, and sank down gratefully onto all fours when Darryl relieved him of it. Dimly he heard Darryl call out, "Didn't you also say something about my man Ronan here being without allies and weapons? I gotta say, I think me and this kernel qualify."
There was a great roar. Ronan hung hard to the grass, fighting to get his breath back and to keep the shield in place, but after a moment the shield evaporated. His head jerked up in horror -- and then he stopped, and stared. Darryl was standing perfectly at ease, looping and twisting the kernel with assurance. The Lone One seemed to be struggling against writhing bonds made of Its own shadows, and around It, one by one, the transit/locator spells were disappearing.
It had to be taking Darryl a really alarming amount of energy, but so far he seemed to be holding his own, or at least bluffing very well. Meanwhile, Ronan's own energy was stabilizing enough, now that the shield was gone, for him to climb to his feet without swaying. Darryl darted him a quick sideways look and kept on at the kernel.
A few strands of the Lone One's shadow ropes broke and fell away.
"Ah," Ronan breathed, with sudden delighted understanding. He reached into his local otherspace and felt around until he found it: an energy beam, highly concentrated and extremely lethal at close range. It was more like a flashy bolt of lightning than anything else -- or like a spear of light.
He brought it out, leaned back, and with the ease of practice, hurled it as hard as he could at the Lone Power.
A great echoing scream went up, and all that remained was a crater.
The last visible bike path vanished.
As one Ronan and Darryl collapsed, leaning on one another and panting. After a moment Darryl started to laugh with breathless, relieved joy, and Ronan couldn't help but join him. Eventually their laughter trailed off into pleased silence. "Well," Ronan said. "That was quite a thing."
"You said it." Darryl attempted to stand, wobbled, used Ronan's shoulder as leverage, and got to his feet. "Ready to go home?"
"Hold on," Ronan said. "Give me that for a second."
Darryl tossed the kernel gently into Ronan's waiting hands. He gave it a look-through. Satisfied that all the Lone One's spells had been rendered redundant, he closed the spell off one last time, linking it into the Crossings. It could be a bizarre tourist attraction. He got to his feet and slid the kernel carefully back into the great oak before turning to Darryl. "Take us back to Ireland, will you?"
"Got it." Darryl reached out and took Ronan's hand, squeezing lightly. Ronan squeezed back. They stepped forward together.
Ronan slept through what little was left of Friday, and well into Saturday. If he dreamed, it was nothing of consequence.
Over breakfast, beginning to feel sentient again, Ronan got a call from Kit. "Mmhm?"
"Bad time?" Kit asked.
Ronan rolled his eyes. "I sleep later than you. How awful. So what is it, more Mars news?"
"Uh huh." Kit paused. Then he said, in an earnest rush, "I had another idea and I wanted some help with the spelling. But, uh, Darryl says he's grounded for skipping out on school Friday. Are you up for it if it's just us?"
Ronan blinked and gave Kit some points for excellent observational skills in all areas of life excepting those that concerned Nita. "I'm up," he said. "Or I will be once I've had a second cup of tea. ETA one hour at your usual spot?"
"Yeah," Kit said, sounding surprised and making up for it by also sounding genuinely pleased. "See you there."
"Looking forward to it," Ronan said. And for the first time in a while, it was true.