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It was Pat who called the meeting of Danny’s friends. “Right after school, in the place,” she said to each of them. Then she immediately changed the subject, to forestall questions. Parry McCluer High School was not the place to have this discussion. They couldn’t afford to be overheard.
Pat cut her last class of the day, so she was already in the small clearing in the woods overlooking the high school when the others began to arrive. As she expected, they each popped into existence in their regular spot. First Laurette and Sin, because they had last period together. Then Xena, who arrived talking, as if she had used her gate in mid-conversation with somebody else.
Xena caught Pat’s glare and glared back. “I was talking to Wheeler,” she said, “behind the school with nobody else around. I’m not an idiot.”
“Wheeler is,” said Laurette.
“Wheeler is what?” asked Wheeler, who arrived wiping his hands on the back of his pants. Pat wondered idly if he had come a few moments after Xena so he’d have a chance to pick his nose and wipe his finger on his clothes. Well, give the boy credit for wanting to do it when nobody was looking.
“Drop it,” said Xena. “You’re here now.”
“What about Hal?” asked Pat.
“He’s doing some kind of computer experiment thing,” said Wheeler. “Might as well start without him.”
“Might as well not,” said Pat.
“What’s this about?” asked Laurette.
“When Hal is here,” said Pat.
“So mysterious,” said Sin.
“You like mystery,” said Xena. “It’s like we’re living inside The X-Files.”
“Is this another intervention?” asked Wheeler.
“Do you see a sign?” asked Laurette.
Pat thought back to the time when they forced Danny to tell them the truth about himself by staging an intervention disguised as a birthday party. Only Danny hadn’t told them. He took their ultimatum—tell us who or what you really are, or we’re not friends—and made the wrong choice. They followed him home and it was the Greek Lockfriend, Hermia, who ended up telling them that Danny North was a Norse god, after a fashion. A gatemage, who could create passages through which people could pass instantaneously from one place to another.
Hermia also enlisted them as Danny’s servants. She was very cold about it. They weren’t Danny’s equals, and so the only way to be his friends was to serve his purposes. They had all agreed, though they really had no idea what it meant at the time. At first it was really cool—the amulets he made for them, that brought them to this clearing in the woods; the occasional trips anywhere in the world. The time he enlisted Hal and Wheeler to help him dig out an ancient cave opening in Egypt. The time he had them memorize a proclamation, then gated them to each of the great Families to recite it to them. It felt so much bigger than anything they had ever imagined.
Laurette and Sin immediately got flirty with Danny in a way they had never been before, but it was Xena who quite openly started lobbying to have his baby. Danny rejected her advances, kindly but clearly refusing to father children on anybody. Xena hadn’t let go of it—she imagined that because Danny wasn’t actually cruel to her, he was secretly in love with her.
Pat saw all this with something halfway between amusement and disgust. The only girl who worried her was the Greek gatemage, Hermia. Because she was a mage like Danny, only weaker—she couldn’t actually make gates, only find them and open and close them—he spent a lot of time with her. But Pat saw something about Hermia that Danny couldn’t see—that she was using him, that she could not be trusted. Hermia didn’t show any close bond to him. She wasn’t his.
And when Pat went to his house late one night to warn him about Hermia, something happened. Pat ended up confessing to him something she hadn’t realized until that moment: that she herself was in love with him—the only one of the girls who really was. And Danny responded by kissing her and telling her that he loved her in return. It was so overwhelming, emotionally, that if he had wanted to, she would have made love to him then and there.
But Danny refused. He wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t going to have sex with anybody until he actually made a lifelong commitment and married someone. Period. No exceptions, not even for true love.
After she left, Pat was stunned and humiliated by her own audacity in going to his little two-room house, alone, and practically throwing herself at him. She felt as stupid and obvious as Xena.
Except that Danny had wanted her. He loved her. So there was nothing to feel stupid about. That mantra kept her going.
Then Danny took them through a Great Gate to the world of Westil. He had been forced into making the Great Gate by Hermia’s betrayal, and the purpose was to take the Mithermage Families through the Great Gate to Westil and then bring them all back to Earth, to Mittlegard. Passage through a Great Gate also brought mages to the peak of their powers. Danny had hoped that if any of his nonmagical drowther friends from Parry McCluer High had latent magical abilities, they would emerge after that passage.
None of the others reported having any changes in them. But that didn’t prove anything, because a new powerhad emerged in Pat, and she hadn’t told anybody. Though it was hard to imagine any of the others keeping something like that secret. Maybe Hal. But the others would blab or brag or be so scared they would have to talk to somebody.
Pat had no such need. She recognized what was going on the moment she felt the air of Westil moving against her skin. Then, moments later, when she returned to Earth, the same feeling was there. It wasn’t Westil’s air that mattered to her after passing through a Great Gate—it was air. Air in motion. Air with power.
She had always loved the wind, from breezes to gales. She was not surprised that this turned out to be her affinity, and she began to be able to spin little whirlwinds, to raise a breeze, even a wind. A few times, walking alone down a steep hill, she had created a wind that lifted her off her feet and carried her several yards in whatever direction she chose.
I can fly, she had thought. Yet she told no one, not even Danny. She meant to, but it never came up. And she was afraid he’d see what she could do and say, Is that all?
No, Danny would never show disappointment. He’d be very encouraging. But she’d see in his eyes that he wasnot impressed.
So she held off, working on her windmagery privately so she’d have something worth showing when she finally told him.
But today something happened that made her own pathetic magery seem utterly unimportant. Because Pat had reason to believe that Danny was in grave danger.
No. Not danger. She had reason to believe that the worst thing had already happened to him.
“So what is this meeting about, Pat?” asked Hal.
He must have arrived while she was in her reverie.
“I don’t think this meeting should take place here,” said Pat.
Everyone seemed exasperated. “Then why did you bring us here?” demanded Wheeler.
“Because this is where the emergency escape gate is,” said Pat. “What I tell you about, I want to say in front of Danny’s friend in DC. Stone.”
“Why?” asked Hal. “We don’t even know him.”
“But Danny does. And Stone knows about magery. He can tell us what to do, and what not to do.”
“About what?” demanded Sin. “You’re being so bossy and creepy.”
“About Danny,” said Pat.
She couldn’t watch everyone at once, but it seemed to her that all the other girls flinched or stiffened or looked away when she spoke of doing something about Danny.
Pat rose to her feet and walked to the tree that held the small gate leading to DC. She touched the spot under the tree limb and just like that, with no physical sensation but the change of air, she was in a dark attic room.
By the light slanting through the shutters of the east-facing cupola window, she saw the low table with a stack of pennies on it. They were the arsenal Danny had created; each penny had gates on either side. If they arrived with an enemy in pursuit, they were to handle the pennies by the edge only, and throw them at the pursuer. The gate would hurtle their enemy to some far-off, awkward location, almost all of them with police or military close by.
But her pursuers this time were her friends, and she stepped away from the gate so they could come through without bumping her out of the way. Danny had told them about a time when he gated himself into a space occupied by Coach Lieder’s hand, shattering the bones of his fingers into slivers inside little bags of flesh. Pat didn’t want that to happen to her whole body.
She glanced over only long enough to see that it was Laurette who had come right after her. “Move out of the way of the gate,” said Pat, “and keep the others up here. I’m going to find Stone.”
“Can I turn on a light?” asked Laurette.
Pat was already out the door and heading down the stairs.
She found Stone in the kitchen, talking earnestly with two men in suits. For a moment Pat thought: We’re betrayed, he’s talking to the enemy. But then she realized that whatever enemy she was thinking of was not all that likely to be wearing suits, and there were a thousand perfectly honorable reasons Stone might be having such a conversation.
“Good to see you,” said Stone cheerfully. He turned to the men. “I’m so sorry, but I do believe our time is up. I have to deal with some of my guests.”
“What are you running here, a hotel?” asked one of the men, pretending it was a joke.
“A hospitable home,” said Stone with a smile. “You’ll see, someday.”
“I hope not,” said the other man. “He makes a terrible houseguest.”
Stone took Pat firmly by the hand and led her out of the kitchen and up the stairs. He bounded upward with surprising speed and agility, for someone who looked to be middle-aged. But then, he had passed through a Great Gate too. He was in perfect health.
After the third-floor landing, he spoke to her softly. “What kind of mage are you?” he asked.
“Mage?” she replied.
“Whatever you’ve got,” said Stone, “it’s strong. Scary strong. I thought Danny’s friends were all drowthers.”
“That’s why he passed us through the gate in Maine ahead of everyone else,” said Pat. “Nobody knows about me.”
“I’ll keep your secret.” Then he hesitated a moment. “Wind, I’m betting.”
“You win,” said Pat.
“How many of you are coming? Anyone in pursuit?”
“All of us,” said Pat, “and no.”
“Why are you here, then?” asked Stone. “If this is just a field trip to the nation’s capital, I’m not in favor of it. There are buses and trains.”
“There’s something wrong with Danny, and I want you to hear about it along with the others.”
Stone didn’t ask any more questions. Most adults would have demanded that she tell more, right then. But he actually heard her request that he hear her story along with the others. He respected her decision and complied with her plan, undoubting. What other adult did that?
They were all sitting on the cot or the rickety old chairs, except Sin, who sat on the floor. “Hello, Mr. Stone,” said Laurette.
“Not ‘mister,’” said Stone. “Just ‘Stone.’”
“My mother would kill me,” said Laurette. “I was raised with manners.”
“An admirable skill, manners,” said Stone. He gently pushed Wheeler off the firmest chair and sat on it himself. So his respect for teenagers didn’t extend to everybody. Maybe it only extended to fellow mages.
Wheeler didn’t protest. He just sat on the floor and gathered his legs and arms into a position that Pat knew would leave him aching in only a few minutes.
But it was her meeting, and it was time to start. “Danny’s changed,” said Pat. “And it’s enough of a change that I’m afraid he might already have been possessed by Set. By the Belgod.”
Everyone became attentive.
“It’s going to sound stupid and vain,” said Pat, “but I think it’s important.”
“Instead of discussing the merits of ‘it,’” said Stone, “please just tell us, straight out, what ‘it’ is.”
Pat realized that Stone was right, she was talking around her observation because there was so much potential for embarrassment. But embarrassment didn’t matter if Danny was in danger. “Every one of us girls made a play for Danny,” she said, though she loathed comparing what she had done with the way the others had flirted and teased. “And he turned us all down.”
“Hard to understand,” said Stone. Pat wondered if any of the others knew he was being ironic.
“It’s just a fact,” said Pat. “He told us all he was interested, he liked girls, but he wasn’t going to make any bastards or be the kind of god who went around having sex with … drowthers.”
Stone nodded. “That was a wise policy, and I’m not surprised Danny had the strength to stick to it.”
“Not surprised because you don’t think we’re all that attractive?” asked Xena, her ear always attuned to the possibility that she had been insulted.
“Stick to the point, Xena,” said Pat.
“I don’t know the point, you haven’t told us,” said Xena.
“The point is this. Nicki Lieder—the coach’s daughter—she came to me this morning during lunch and told me, very quietly, that she was pregnant, and Danny was the only possible father.”
“That little mouse?” said Laurette disdainfully.
“Mouse?” said Hal. “Have you seen her since she came back to school?”
“What does she have that we don’t have?” said Xena.
Wheeler looked as if he wouldn’t mind making a list for her, so Pat forestalled him. “That’s my point,” said Pat. “Why would he sleep with her, but not us?”
“She raped him,” said Hal.
“Ha ha,” said Sin.
“She told me,” said Pat, “because he wasn’t in school today and she needed to tell him about the pregnancy. She’s going to tell her father this afternoon.”
“Coach Lieder’s going to kill Danny,” said Hal.
“Not likely,” said Stone.
“She wanted to give Danny a heads-up,” said Pat. “Because she reported the encounter to the police the morning after it happened. She reported it as a rape.”
“She accused Danny?” asked Xena.
“No,” said Pat. “She didn’t name names, she said she didn’t see his face and couldn’t even say what race he was, or how tall or anything. She said she didn’t know her assailant.”
“Oh, good,” said Sin. “So I won’t have to kill her.”
“The point is that Danny’s DNA is out there as a rapist,” said Pat. “I don’t imagine Danny’s DNA is in any database, but if he’s arrested for something else…”
“Gross,” said Laurette. “He left it in her.”
“I thought when you reported rape, they, like, took care of it,” said Xena. “The pregnancy.”
“She didn’t let them,” said Pat. “She told them she had a religious objection to anything like abortion.”
“She wanted his baby,” said Xena.
“So did you,” pointed out Wheeler.
“But I wouldn’t have pretended he raped me,” said Xena.
“No, you would have bragged it was him,” said Hal. “She reported it as rape so that if she got pregnant, she could give the police report to her father and he wouldn’t pester her to find out who the father is.”
“Smart girl,” said Stone. “She was protecting Danny.”
“I haven’t told you the important part yet,” said Pat.
They fell silent again.
“Nicki said that it happened at Danny’s house. She went there in the middle of the night. It was the same night after he made the gate in … that place. Remember how tired he was?”
“No,” said Laurette, “which makes me think you were over there pestering him the same night.”
“Well, you’d be correct,” said Pat.
The other girls made a show of being shocked.
Pat looked Stone straight in the eyes. “Danny and I are in love,” she told him. “I wanted to spend the night with him. To move in with him if I could. He said—and demonstrated—how willing he was. Eager. But he still wouldn’t do it. For the same reason as always. He said he wasn’t going to be a typical god.”
“That’s how he turned us all down,” said Xena.
“But that same night, Nicki says she walked there at two a.m. and just opened his door and went in and there he was, mostly undressed, lying on top of his bed, and … she said he was ready for her. Sexually.” Pat blushed, knowing why Danny was in that state, and then hated herself for blushing, and blushed all the more because of that. Thank heaven the attic was so dark.
“So she was, like, a succubus,” said Wheeler.
“You don’t get pregnant from that,” said Xena.
“A succubus is a female demon that comes and has sex with you in the night,” said Hal. “According to ancient lore. The male equivalent is ‘incubus.’”
“Sounds like a medieval attempt to explain wet dreams,” said Wheeler.
“And single girls’ babies,” said Hal.
“Well, she wasn’t mythical,” said Pat. “She undressed him the rest of the way and she was all over him before he even woke up.”
“How much did she tell you?” asked Stone. “Was she trying to cause you pain?”
“No,” said Pat. “She was apologizing. She was explaining. Because it wasn’t really her.”
They all looked at her blankly.
“OK, then why is she pregnant?” asked Laurette.
Stone knew. He was looking at the floor instead of at her.
“It wasn’t her making the decisions,” said Pat. “That’s the whole reason we’re having this meeting. Nicki has never heard Danny talk about the Belgod and how he possesses people, and how he can jump from one person to another and live forever and all that. But what she tells me, out of the blue, is that she was controlled, herbody was controlled by something else. It would sometimes talk to her, using her own voice. And it would make her do things, strange things, stupid things. Then let her have control of her body for hours. Then make her do something bizarre again.”
“Wheeler does that and he isn’t possessed,” said Xena.
Stone impatiently held up a hand to signal Xena to stop talking.
“Then right at the moment when Danny … got her pregnant…”
“Orgasmed. Ejaculated,” said Laurette. “Come on, we all had sex education.”
Pat shuddered, as she had when Nicki told her. “The thing left her body and went into his. Then it used his voice to talk to her. But no, I’m telling it out of order. Just before the … transfer … it used her mouth to say to him, ‘You want me inside you.’”
“And he said yes,” whispered Stone. His face looked like a portrait of despair.
“Yes,” said Pat. “Only she told me it made no sense, because she wasn’t inside him, it was the other way around. It only makes sense if you think of it as the Belgod asking Danny to let him in. To invite him.”
“And he did,” said Stone.
“So this is true?” asked Hal. “Because I was thinking it was all just a lie Nicki told to explain being pregnant.”
“It might be exactly that,” said Stone, “but then she certainly knows a lot of details that she shouldn’t know.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Pat. “That’s why I thought this was important. Because ever since that night, Danny’s been different. Not himself.”
“In what way?” asked Stone. He was asking Pat, but looking at each of the other kids in turn, as if for confirmation.
“He came on to me,” said Pat. “Which would have been fine, only he was weird about it. Came up behind me and cupped my butt with his hand. Right by my locker, with people around.”
“Who cares?” said Xena. “I thought you two were in love.”
“We are,” said Pat. “Were, anyway. But he knows I don’t like people to just … touch me. Out of the blue. Heknows that. And the way he talked. He called me ‘baby girl.’ Guys who talk like that make me sick.”
“Me too,” said Wheeler.
Stone was nodding, though. “Not Danny’s style.”
“Danny knows better than to treat me like that, talk to me like that. He was crude. Like the only thing on his mind was sex. Like he thought he owned me. Like I see other guys act with girls, and they get all fluttery, but not me, and Danny knows that. Knew that.”
“What did you do?” asked Stone.
“Pulled away from him,” said Pat. “And told him it wasn’t happening. He kept trying for a minute, and then he gives me a little shove and a tiny slap on the cheek and says, ‘Your loss, baby girl,’ and that was it. Walked away.”
Laurette sighed. “You told him no? What else is he going to do?”
“Danny wouldn’t have asked. Not that way. Not like he had the right. It wasn’t Danny, and you all know it.”
“What’s your name?” Stone asked Pat. She told him.
“Pat,” he said, “you did right. Not to tell him what you were thinking.”
“I didn’t know what the Belmage would do, if he was really in possession of Danny, and I told him I knew he was there.”
“Good thinking,” said Stone. “What about the rest of you? Anybody else notice a change?”
“Yes,” said Hal. “He hardly talks to me and Wheeler anymore. Walks along the corridor at school smiling at people and saying hi to them.”
“He’s friendly,” said Laurette.
“Especially girls,” said Wheeler.
“I didn’t notice that it was especially girls,” said Hal.
“But it was.”
“I’m not arguing,” said Hal, “I’m just saying what I saw. It’s like we could hang around if we wanted, but Danny didn’t care, and maybe he was even a little annoyed to have us there.”
“Maybe?” said Wheeler. “What about when he told us to get lost while he talked to Rosann?”
“Rosann?” asked Hal.
“You know, Rosann the queen of the universe—”
“I know who Rosann is,” said Hal. “I just don’t remember Danny talking to her and—”
“Oh, right,” said Wheeler. “It was after lunch and you had already peeled off to go to—”
Stone interrupted them. “Has anybody seen Danny use a gate?”
“Like, constantly,” said Xena.
“That’s just not true,” said Pat. “He hardly ever uses gates these days. He’s trying not to clutter up the world with gates, remember?”
“I mean specifically since he took you through the Great Gate to Westil,” said Stone. “It’s been more than a month. In that time, has he ever?”
They were silent.
“This is kind of impossible,” said Sin. “How can we remember what didn’t happen since a certain day?”
“Since we went through a gate to another planet?” said Pat. “No, Stone, I haven’t seen him use a gate since then. Not even to come up to our place.”
“Place?” asked Stone.
“Where the emergency gate is,” said Wheeler.
“Any of the rest of you seen him use a gate since then?” asked Stone.
Nobody could remember it if he did.
“The reason I’m asking is, a Gatefather like Danny knows when people pass through his gates. He can feel it. So when you all gathered at your place and then all came here, he would know that.”
Pat understood. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Exactly,” said Stone. “All his friends are having a meeting, using his gates to get there. A meeting with me. Shouldn’t he be curious? And if he’s curious, why not come find out what’s going on?”
“So you’re saying the Belmage is keeping him from coming?” asked Xena.
“The Belmage would be even more curious why we’re gathered here,” said Stone. “Hard to think why he wouldn’t come to see if we pose some kind of danger to him.”
“So it’s a good thing that Danny isn’t here?”
“Maybe,” said Stone. “I mean, he might also just be busy or he might respect your privacy. All kinds of reasons. But it might also mean that somehow Danny is keeping the Belmage from getting access to his gates.”
“I thought when the Belmage gets you, you’re, like, gotten,” said Sin. “Possessed. Owned.”
“Exactly,” said Stone. “So if Danny found a way to keep the Belmage away from his gates—”
“Then he’s beating the devil,” said Wheeler. “Cool.”
“Semi-cool,” said Stone. “It’s excellent because otherwise, the Belmage could just whip up a new Great Gate and go to Westil and that’s it, he takes all his followers, the Sutahites, and Westil is lost. They won’t even know what hit them.”
“And we do?” said Laurette.
“The human race at least knows what possession is,” said Stone. “Or movies like The Exorcist would never have been made.”
“So does that work?” asked Wheeler. “Exorcism? Do we need to find a priest and—”
“No,” said Stone.
“But how do you know that?” asked Wheeler. “Maybe some exorcists actually know what they’re doing, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only with demons.”
“Shut up, Wheeler,” said Hal.
“If exorcism never works, then why are there exorcists?” asked Wheeler.
“Bleeding never worked and yet doctors carried leeches around for centuries,” said Hal. “And Stone knows.”
“Thank you,” said Stone. “Exorcism might work or it might not, against the lesser Belmages, the Sutahites. But we’re talking about the Belmage. Set himself. And there’s only one way to get him out of a person if he doesn’t want to go.”
“So whatever it is, let’s do it,” said Wheeler.
“Let’s not,” said Pat.
“If Danny’s being controlled by this Belmage guy, I’m pretty sure he wants him gone,” said Wheeler.
“Wheeler,” said Sin, “get a brain. The only way to get rid of this Set guy is to kill the host.”
“Stone?” asked Wheeler.
“Not the host of this party—which doesn’t even have refreshments,” said Xena. “The host body where the Belmage is living.”
“We’re not killing Danny,” said Laurette.
“Danny told us more than once,” said Stone, “that if he was ever possessed, we should kill him without a qualm, if that’s what it took to stop Set from using a Great Gate.”
“Never,” said Hal.
“So you’d leave him a slave forever?” asked Laurette.
“It’s about saving the world,” said Pat.
“I thought you said you loved him,” said Xena.
“If it was necessary,” said Stone, “then we couldn’t do it anyway. Gatemages are hard to kill, and Gatefathers are the hardest. They don’t stay put long enough to die.”
“In his sleep?” asked Hal. “I mean, if Nicki could get his clothes off without—”
“Danny was undoubtedly under the influence of Sutahites,” said Stone. “They can influence dreams. Make dreams that explain what’s happening to your body. So if somebody slipped Danny a drug, maybe he could be killed in his sleep. But you’re not thinking. We only need to kill Danny to save the world. The worlds. But if Danny is somehow keeping the Belmage from getting access to his gates, that means he’d be easy to kill, but we also don’t need to, because the Belmage isn’t dangerous.”
“So let’s stop talking about killing Danny, please,” said Pat.
“No,” said Stone. “Because if Danny’s keeping Set away from the gates, then Set is seriously angry. He’s not nice, you know. He didn’t get a reputation as Satan or the devil or whatever because he was generous and merciful.”
“You think he’s going to punish Danny?” asked Pat.
“How?” asked Hal. “He’s inside Danny’s body, too. Whatever happens to Danny, happens to him.”
“Until he leaves,” said Stone.
“So he could, like, make Danny cut his own throat,” said Wheeler, “and while he’s bleeding to death, the Belmage leaves and goes into somebody else’s body?”
“When Set leaves Danny,” said Stone, “he’s not going to be nice about it. He’s going to cause Danny maximum pain, if he’s angry at him. But you’re right about Set feeling whatever Danny’s body feels. So he’s likely to do something much worse than just killing Danny.”
“What’s worse than that?” asked Wheeler.
Stone made a sweeping gesture, indicating all of Danny’s friends.
“Oh, shit,” said Hal.
“Exactly my point,” said Stone.
“What?” said Xena. “What did you all get that I’m not getting?”
“Pretty much everything all the time,” said Hal. “Let’s say the Belmage wants to punish Danny. So he makes Danny murder one of us in a public place, lots of witnesses, and then jumps out of Danny’s body into somebody else’s and goes on his merry way.”
“They couldn’t arrest Danny,” said Wheeler. “He could gate away.”
“But the one of us that he killed would still be dead,” said Hal.
“It would probably be Pat,” said Stone. “And he’d probably make Danny do it with his bare hands. Danny would have an indelible memory of doing that murder. So yes, that’s a possibility. But he could also cause Danny to cut off a hand. I’m not sure passing through a gate can heal damage like that. Or make Danny a mass murderer, like shooting up a kindergarten. Or all of the above. Don’t underestimate the creativity and malice of pure evil.”
“So we should stay away from Danny?” asked Xena.
“I don’t know what you should do,” said Stone.
“Then why are we here?” asked Laurette.
“I didn’t invite you,” said Stone, “you just came. But I’m glad you did. Because I can talk to some people who might know what to do about it.”
“Danny would rather that we kill him,” said Pat, “than let his body be used to hurt other people.”
“Every time I hear people talk about what somebody else ‘would want,’” said Hal, “it’s always pretty much the opposite of what they’d really want.”
“You’re a perceptive young man,” said Stone, “but in this case, Pat has a point. Danny North is a good man. Not perfect, because gatemages are all pranksters and brats, but he wouldn’t want his body used to harm other people. So here’s my hope: If he still has enough control to keep the Belmage from getting the use of his gates, then maybe he can stop him from doing other things, too.”
Pat noticed that the other three girls all reacted to that idea. Laurette with a little nod, Sin by resting her head on her hands, Xena by staring off into space as if remembering something. As if the idea of Danny stopping the Belmage from using his body to do harm meant something to each of them.
Don’t read too much into body language, Pat told herself. You’re a windmage, not a mind reader.
But maybe Stone noticed it, too. Maybe it really was something.
“I think Xena asked the right question,” said Hal. “Should we avoid Danny? Or would that just tell the Belmage that we’re on to him, and put Danny in worse danger?”
“You think this Set guy might possess one of us?” asked Sin.
“He’d prefer a mage,” said Stone.
Pat appreciated the fact that he didn’t look at her when he said it.
“But in a pinch, any body will do. And I mean it that way—not ‘anybody’ but ‘any … body.’ He could go into a dog or a horse or—”
“Pigs,” said Sin. “The Gadarene swine.”
“Anybody who comes near Danny is a potential target,” said Stone.
“How near?” asked Wheeler. “Do you have to be touching him? I mean, Nicki was, like…”
“We know what Nicki was doing,” said Stone, “and no, there doesn’t have to be physical contact. Some people have more resistance than others, though. I think Danny is particularly strong, and that’s why the Belmage set up a situation where he could trick Danny into inviting him in. That gives Set way more access than if he jumps in out of the blue. There are stories of how it can sometimes take a long time to worm in and take full control. Since this subject first came up, Veevee’s been doing a lot of research and trying to work up a sort of biography of Set. Though it’s hard to distinguish what’s done by Set himself and what’s really the work of the Sutahites.”
“So it wouldn’t really make any difference, whether we’re close by or not,” said Hal.
“If he wants one of you, he’ll find a way to get close enough.”
“So we should act like nothing’s different?” asked Xena.
“For the time being,” said Stone.
“Except Danny felt us all come here,” said Xena, “so he’ll know we did something without him and he’ll ask us.”
“Field trip to our nation’s capital?” suggested Sin.
“Oh, right,” said Wheeler.
“I was being ironic,” said Sin.
“Just tell him you’re planning a surprise Christmas present,” said Stone. “But don’t volunteer it. Make him pry it out of you.”
“And if he really pushes, tell him we couldn’t think of anything,” said Pat.
“Yeah,” said Xena. “What do you get for somebody who can shoplift anything he wants without ever getting caught?”
“Danny doesn’t steal,” said Pat.
“Unless he needs to,” said Stone. “Don’t impose your moral values on Danny. He’s trying to overcome it, but he was raised in one of the Families, and to them, stealing from drowthers isn’t really stealing. It’s like snacking.”
“Ah,” said Xena. Snacking she understood.
“So Danny’s living in hell right now,” said Hal, “and we can’t do anything at all to help him. We just have to pretend that everything’s normal? Doesn’t sound very loyal to me.”
“Just until I can talk it over with the others,” said Stone.
“What others?” demanded Pat.
“The others,” said Stone. “Marion and Leslie. Veevee.”
“Oh, I see,” said Stone. “No, not Hermia. That treacherous little … not her. And not Danny’s family. The last thing we want anyone to know is that Danny’s under somebody else’s control. Half the Families would try to kill him, and the other half would try to bargain with the Belgod to get some kind of advantage.”
“Even Danny’s own family?” asked Laurette mournfully.
“It’s about power,” said Stone. “Most people respond to power by trying to control it, to get the use of it. And if they can’t own it, then they try to destroy it.”
“The more you say about how bad the Families are,” said Hal, “the more they sound like normal humans.”
Stone chuckled at that, but didn’t dispute the point. “I take it you can use your own amulets to get back home?”
“To our meeting place, anyway,” said Hal.
“Then you should get back there before your families miss you. And just in case it occurs to one of you to try to save Danny by inviting the Belmage to jump into you, don’t even try. Because he wouldn’t come into you himself, he’d just have one of his followers take you over.”
“But we could resist one of those,” said Wheeler.
“Danny could,” said Stone.
“And you think we’re all weak?” asked Wheeler.
“Please don’t take this as a challenge,” said Stone. “Being possessed by the devil isn’t a recreational drug. It’s losing everything.”
“It’s like being murdered,” said Hal, “only you have to stay and watch.”
“Exactly,” said Stone. “And yes, kid,” he said to Wheeler. “I think you’re weak. Because you are weak. Danny seems to be fighting this thing—and even he is barely holding on. There’s not a chance in hell that any of you are even close to being as strong as Danny is. Get it?”
“Got it,” said Wheeler.
“Go,” said Stone.
“You’re supposed to say ‘Good,’” said Wheeler.
“This isn’t The Court Jester,” said Stone. “Go.”
They all took out their amulets and gated away. Except Pat.
“Please tell me what you find out,” she said to Stone. “Please don’t cut us out of this just because we’re drowthers.”
“Give me your phone number,” said Stone. “Danny can sense whenever you come here like this, but he can’t tell if I text you or call.”
She wrote it down.
“But you’re the only one I’m telling,” said Stone.
“You can trust Hal to keep his mouth shut,” said Pat.
“Think a little harder,” said Stone.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m not a drowther.”
“Goodbye, windmage,” said Stone. “Thank you for telling me. I think you’ve done everything right.”
“We don’t even know what ‘right’ is,” said Pat.
“But you didn’t keep it to yourself in order to avoid being embarrassed if you were wrong,” said Stone. “You didn’t try to fix it or talk to Danny about it directly. A lot of really wrong things that you didn’t do.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s comforting to know I could be even dumber.”
Stone gave a short little bark of a laugh. “Nobody could ever call you dumb, kid. I saw you notice the other girls’ reaction when I said Danny might have blocked the Belmage from doing other things, too.”
“But I don’t know what it means,” said Pat.
“Maybe nothing,” said Stone. “But you noticed. Now you’ll hold that in the back of your mind, and maybe something will happen to explain it. Or maybe it won’t, because maybe it was nothing.”
Pat didn’t think it was nothing, but he was right. Just wait and things will get clearer. Or they won’t.
“Meanwhile, Pat, practice your magery,” said Stone. “Get it under very good control. Weaponize it.”
“Why?” said Pat. “I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“When somebody’s trying to destroy a person you love, even pacifists find themselves wishing they had a gun.” Stone chuckled again. “Or a rocket launcher.”
He seemed to be referring to something, but Pat didn’t know what. She’d Google “rocket launcher” later. But it probably didn’t matter—if it did, Stone would have explained it.
She touched her amulet and found herself back in the clearing. The others were already gone, though she could hear Wheeler and Hal talking loudly, well down the slope.
Pat sat down in her usual place. She hadn’t really thought about having a “usual place” before, but yes, they all did. Like first grade, everybody in an assigned seat. Only it wasn’t assigned.
How did I choose this place? It isn’t particularly comfortable. But I wasn’t the last to sit down, this isn’t “last pick.”
Danny sits there. So I wasn’t trying to get as close to him as possible. But I’m also not directly across from him.
I sit where I can always see him, but he isn’t looking right at me all the time. Off to the side. Just the tiniest bit outside the circle.
She heard footsteps.
She knew it was Danny before she looked. Because he knew they were here, and he’d have to know why. He or the Belmage. And waiting to get one of them alone made sense. Especially her. If the Belmage knew what she was to Danny.
If she was right and it was the Belmage. Maybe Danny just started acting like a jerk to make her fall out of love with him. Maybe he got Nicki pregnant because he liked her better.
He came up behind her and started playing with her hair. She couldn’t help feeling a kind of thrill at his touch.
Then he knelt beside her and put one hand on her shoulder and slid the other hand down into her blouse.
She threw herself away from him, off to the side. “What are you doing!” she said.
“You liked it well enough the other night,” said Danny.
“The other night, you didn’t just grab me like you had a right,” said Pat. “Or have you forgotten everything we talked about?”
“What I remember,” said Danny, “was that we finally stopped talking.” And he gave this little shit-eating grin that he only ever wore when he had just brought off a prank.
Only it wasn’t Danny who was fooling somebody, it was the Belmage. He’s feeling smug and clever, and so Danny’s face shows it, but the Belmage doesn’t even realize that it’s a giveaway to somebody who really knows him, who has spent weeks and weeks studying everything he says and does.
The Belmage wasn’t inside him that night, thought Pat. He doesn’t know what we talked about. Is that because Danny didn’t even remember it, the conversation was so unimportant? Or is it because the Belmage only has access to Danny’s physical memories? He can remember Danny and Pat going at it, but not the conversation leading up to it.
“Danny,” said Pat—knowing that she was talking to the Belmage, but hoping to get a message through to the real Danny, who was surely listening very closely. “I love you. That’s not going to change. But like you said, we’re not married, and so we’re not going there. I didn’t like it at the time, but I agree with you now. And you should remember what I said about personal space and being touched without me inviting it.”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
But he didn’t sound all that sorry. It was just words. The real Danny would really have been sorry. In fact, the real Danny would never have tried to cop a feel right out of the blue like that.
“Until we’re in a position to make something real out of this,” said Pat, “out of whatever it is we feel for each other, then physically we’re just friends. That’s what you wanted, right?”
“It’s what I wanted then,” said Danny’s mouth.
“Oh, and just walking up behind me in the woods, suddenly you were overwhelmed with passion?” She laughed.
After a moment—too long a moment—he laughed, too.
The Belmage might have had a lot of practice, but he still wasn’t good at this—pretending to be the original person so other people didn’t notice the change.
“If you knew we were up here,” said Pat, “why didn’t you come along?”
“Because you didn’t stay here,” said Danny.
Pat wanted to laugh at how dumb the Belmage was. Danny North wouldn’t need them to stay long enough for him to walk up the hill to join them. He would just gate to them—or gate to wherever they went from here.
“Well,” she said, “it’s a good thing you didn’t, because that would have spoiled everything.”
“It’s hard thinking of a Christmas gift for somebody who can go anywhere and get anything he wants,” said Pat. “And no, we’re not planning some big stupid group gift, we just wanted to share ideas and make sure we didn’t all get you the same thing.”
“The same thing lots of times over can be very nice,” said Danny. His face didn’t really go well with the leer it was wearing as he said that.
“But not very individual,” said Pat.
“So do it as a group,” he said. “Or make me a video.” There was that grin again.
“In your dreams,” said Pat. She got up and started walking down the hill. Despite their effort to come and go without making a path that other people could follow, the ground sort of forced them into a couple of routes, and paths were forming. Some random hiker might find this place and already be here when one of them showed up by gate. But if they used the amulets all the time in order not to make a path, somebody was going to see one of them disappear.
He didn’t call after her. He didn’t follow her.
Danny would have. But the Belmage, caring nothing for the relationship, and apparently believing that “no” meant “no,” didn’t bother.
Copyright © 2015 by Orson Scott Card