SHE DID HER CHORES that morning and got out of the house with the book as fast as she could, heading for one of her secret places in the woods. If weird things start happening, she thought, no one will see them there. Oh, I'm going to get that pen back! And then...
Behind the high school around the corner from Nita's house was a large tract of undeveloped woodland, the usual Long Island combination of scrub oak, white pine, and sassafras. Nita detoured around the school, pausing to scramble over a couple of chain-link fences. There was a path on the other side; after a few minutes she turned off it to pick her way carefully through low underbrush and among fallen logs and tree stumps. Then there was a solid wall of clumped sassafras and twining wild blackberry bushes. It looked totally impassable, and the blackberries threatened Nita with their thorns, but she turned sideways and pushed through the wall of greenery undaunted.
She emerged into a glade walled all around with blackberry and gooseberry and pine, sheltered by the overhanging branches of several trees. One, a large crabapple, stood near the edge of the glade, and there was a flattish half-buried boulder at the base of its trunk. Here she could be sure no one was watching.
Nita sat down on the rock with a sigh, put her back up against the tree, and spent a few moments getting comfortable-then opened the book and started to read.
She found herself not just reading, after a while, but studying-cramming the facts into her head with that particular mental stomp she used when she knew she was going to have to know something by heart. The things the book was telling her now were not vague and abstract, as the initial discussion of theory had been, but as straightforward as the repair manual for a new car, and nearly as complex. There were tables and lists of needed resources for working spells. There were formulas and equations and rules. There was a syllabary and pronunciation guide for the 418 symbols used in the wizardly Speech to describe relationships and effects that other human languages had no specific words for.
The information went on and on-the book was printed small, and there seemed no end to the things Nita was going to have to know about. She read about the hierarchy of practicing wizards-her book listed only those practicing in the United States and Canada, though wizards were working everywhere in the world-and she scanned down the listing for the New York area, noticing the presence of Advisory Wizards, Area Supervisors, Senior Wizards. She read through a list of the "otherworlds" closest to her own, alternate earths where the capital of the United States was named Huictilopochtli or Lafayette City or Hrafnkell or New Washington, and where the people still called themselves Americans, though they didn't match Nita's ideas about the term.
She learned the Horseman's Word, which gets the attention of any member of the genus Equus, even the zebras; and the two forms of the Mason's Word, which gives stone the appearance of life for short periods. One chapter told her about the magical creatures living in cities, whose presence even the nonwizardly people suspect sometimes-creatures like the steam-breathing fireworms, pack-ratty little lizards that creep through cracks in building walls to steal treasures and trash for their lair-hoards under the streets. Nita thought about all the steam she had seen coming up from manhole covers in Manhattan and smiled, for now she knew what was causing it.
She read on, finding out how to bridle the Nightmare and learning what questions to ask the Transcendent Pig, should she meet him. She read about the Trees' Battle-who fought in it, who won it, and why. She read about the forty basic classes of spells and their subclasses. She read about Timeheart, the unreal and eternal realm where the places and things people remember affectionately are preserved as they remember them, forever.
In the middle of the description of things preserved in their fullest beauty forever, and still growing, Nita found herself feeling a faint tingle of unease. She was also getting tired. She dropped the book in her lap with an annoyed sigh, for there was just too much to absorb at one sitting, and she had no clear idea of where to begin. "Crud," she said under her breath. "I thought I'd be able to make Joanne vanish by tomorrow morning."
Nita picked the manual up again and leafed through it to the section labeled "Preliminary Exercises."
The first one was set in a small block of type in the middle of an otherwise empty page.
To change something, you must first describe it. To describe something, you must first see it. Hold still in one place for as long as it takes to see something.
Nita felt puzzled and slightly annoyed. This didn't sound much like magic. But obediently she put the book down, settled herself more comfortably against the tree, folded her arms, and sighed. It's almost too warm to think about anything serious...What should I look at? That rock over there? Naah, it's kind of a dull-looking rock. That weed...look how its leaves go up around the stem in a spiral...Nita leaned her head back, stared up through the crabtree's branches. That rotten Joanne. Where would she have hidden that pen? I wonder. Maybe if I could sneak into her house somehow, maybe there's a spell for that...Have to do it after dark, I guess. Maybe I could do it tonight...Wish it didn't take so long to get dark this time of year. Nita looked at the sky where it showed between the leaves, a hot blue mosaic of light with here and there the fireflicker of sun showing through, shifting with the shift of leaves in the wind. There are kinds of patterns-the wind never goes through the same way twice, and there are patterns in the branches but they're never quite the same, either. And look at the changes in the brightness. The sky is the same but the leaves cover sometimes more and sometimes less...the patterns...the patterns, they...they...
(They won't let you have a moment's rest,) the crabapple tree said irritably. Nita jumped, scraping her back against the trunk as she sat up straight. She had heard the tree quite plainly in some way that had nothing to do with spoken words. It was light patterns she had heard, and wind movements, leafrustle, fireflicker.
(Finally paid attention, did you?) said the tree. (As if one of them isn't enough, messing up someone's fallen-leaf pattern that's been in progress for fifteen years, drawing circles all over the ground and messing up the matrices. Well? What's your excuse?)
Nita sat there with her mouth open, looking up at the words the tree was making with cranky light and shadow. It works. It works! "Uh," she said, not knowing whether the tree could understand her, "I didn't draw any circles on your leaves-"
(No, but that other one did,) the tree said. (Made circles and stars and diagrams all over Telerilarch's collage, doing some kind of power spell. You people don't have the proper respect for artwork. Okay, so we're amateurs,) it added, a touch of belligerence creeping into its voice. (So none of us has been here more than thirty years. Well, our work is still valid, and-)
"Uh, listen, do you mean that there's a, uh, a wizard out here somewhere doing magic?"
(What else?) the tree snapped. (And let me tell you, if you people don't-)
"Where? Where is she?"
(He,) the tree said. (In the middle of all those made-stone roads. I remember when those roads went in, and they took a pattern Kimber had been working on for eighty years and scraped it bare and poured that black rock over it. One of the most complex, most-)
He? Nita thought, and her heart sank slightly. She had trouble talking to boys. "You mean across the freeway, in the middle of the interchange? That