As the final bell rang on the Thursday of her first week at yet another school, Ariane closed the copy of Macbeth she’d been reading, stood up, and had a vision.
The image burst into her brain like the flash of a camera, momentarily blocking out all sight of Mrs. Muirhead’s tenth grade classroom.
Four girls, older than her. Seniors. Waiting by her locker.
The image faded, leaving only the sense of warning that had accompanied it. She looked around for somebody she could walk with, but all the other students had abandoned the classroom the moment the bell rang, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. She barely knew them anyway.
For a moment, she considered leaving her coat in her locker and slipping out the school’s back door, but only for a moment. It might be her first week of school, but it was the fifth week of the school year: early October. The walk home would be chilly. Besides, they had to be faced sooner or later. Might as well make it now, at the beginning of the year. Maybe they’ll get it out of their systems and leave me alone.
Not that they had ever left her alone in any of the other schools Ariane had attended in the last two years. But on the other hand, avoiding them – and there was always a “them” – hadn’t worked either.
And besides, Ariane didn’t like to run away.
So she gathered her books, said “Good-bye” to Mrs. Muirhead, and headed for her locker as usual.
She heard whispers as she turned the corner by the library – the kind of whispers that carry from a stage to the back row of an auditorium. They wanted her to hear them, Ariane thought. They probably thought it would be more fun if she knew what was coming.
Of course, in her case, she’d known what was coming for several minutes.
Her first premonition, two years ago – just after her mother disappeared – had freaked her out. Now she caught a small glimpse of the immediate future every couple of weeks and had begun to take it for granted.
But it wasn’t as if her premonitions did her any good. They hadn’t helped her find her mother, for instance.
She stopped for a moment by the library door as though studying something on the bulletin board. In reality, she was taking sidelong looks at the four girls loitering by her locker. They looked just as they had in her vision. She didn’t know any of their names yet, but she didn’t need to. She’d met their type before.
The pretty girl with the shiny, black, waist-length hair was the leader of the pack: petty, vicious, interested mainly in boys, clothes, and lousy music. There was one – or more than one – in every school, and they always took an instant dislike to Ariane. She wasn’t sure why – probably because she wouldn’t put up with any of their alpha-female crap. It couldn’t be because they saw her as a rival. She wasn’t good-looking enough for that, and besides, she had about as much interest in high school boys as she did in bathroom fungus. Less, actually: scientifically, she found fungus fascinating.
That one, the blonde giving Ariane a toothy smile, like a feral dog smelling blood, would be the lieutenant, the second-in-command. Pretty, but careful to not be as pretty as the leader. She was the real brains of the clique and its enforcer, making sure the leader’s plans were carried out…and planting her own ideas in the invitingly empty space between the leader’s ears.
The other two were mere hangers-on, ciphers who would latch on to anyone who promised parties and boys. They could be ignored when they were on their own, but were dangerous in the company of their leaders.
Ariane registered them and the roles they played in about a minute. She glanced at the library door. She could still flee into it…but no. Get it over with, she thought.
She turned and walked into firing range. “You’re in my way,” she said. Throw them off-guard. “Don’t you have anything better to do after school?”
“We’ll hang around wherever we like,” the leader growled. “You’re Ariane Forsythe, right? The new girl.”
Ariane raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “Amazing,” she said. “I would’ve expected you to be too hung over to hear them introduce me over the P.A.” She stepped around the leader to reach her locker. Tucking her books under one arm, she twirled the lock’s dial, turning her back to the other girls so they couldn’t see the combination. She hoped they also couldn’t see her shoulders tense beneath the old leather motorcycle jacket she wore over her black t-shirt. Would the attack be purely verbal, or…?
Somebody hit her books. They cascaded across the floor, along with her pencil case and calculator. Ariane resisted the urge to pick everything up right away. Kneeling would make her too vulnerable. Instead she turned and spoke in an even, calm voice. “What was that for?”
“What was what for?” parroted the leader. “You dropped your books, Airy-Anne. That was pretty clumsy, Airy-Anne.”
Ariane sighed. You can take some girls out of kindergarten, but you can’t take kindergarten out of some girls. She folded her arms, leaned against the locker next to hers, and stared at the leader. She met her eyes for a moment, then glanced at the blonde lieutenant.
“Aren’t you going to pick up your stuff?” said the lieutenant.
“Eventually. But it would be rude to bend over while we’re chatting. I wouldn’t want you to think I was mooning you.”
The lieutenant looked surprised – then angry. Ariane wasn’t following their script. “I think you should pick it up.” She stepped forward, and Ariane’s pencil case crunched under her gold-sandaled foot. “Someone could step on something.”
“Only someone clumsy, stupid, blind – or all three.” Ariane didn’t budge. Standing, she could deflect a physical attack. If she bent down, she’d be flat on her face a second later.
The lieutenant’s eyes narrowed. “You’re pretty full of yourself.”
“Yeah,” said the leader, taking charge again now they were back on familiar turf. She kicked Ariane’s trigonometry book down the hall. “Pretty full of yourself for a foster brat.”
Despite herself, Ariane felt her face heat up. “I’m not in a foster home. I live with my aunt.”
“Same diff.” The leader slammed Ariane’s locker shut, the door just missing Ariane’s ear. Ariane flinched. “I heard about you, Airy-Anne. Most kids go into foster homes because their parents can’t take care of them. But not you. Your dad ran out on you before you were born. Then, two years ago, your mom ran out on you. You must have done something pretty bad to –”
The leader’s head slammed into the lockers as Ariane lunged at her. A moment later they were rolling on the floor, Ariane fighting in cold silence, the leader screaming obscenities. Ariane got in two good punches and a satisfying slap before the lieutenant and the other two girls hauled her off their leader and pinned her arms behind her. Even so, she struggled and kicked, trying to land another blow. The leader’s face, vividly marked by a white hand print, contorted with fury as she climbed to her feet. “That’ll cost you, you –”
“What’s going on here?” boomed a male voice.
The girls holding Ariane released her so suddenly she stumbled forward and fell at the feet of Mr. Stanton, the vice-principal. He pulled her up, but his eyes were on the leader. “Who hit you, Shania?”
To Ariane’s surprise, Shania didn’t accuse her. Nor did the lieutenant. Apparently they considered tattling to teachers unethical. But not at all to Ariane’s surprise – nor, she suspected, to Shania’s – one of the other girls spoke up right away.
“Ariane did it, Mr. Stanton. She just slapped Shania for no reason at all!”
“Is that true, Ariane?” Mr. Stanton turned his blue eyes on her. He was young for a vice-principal, early 30s maybe, and good-looking, too, in a weightliftingly jockish sort of way.
“I hit her. But not for no reason.”
“Oh? And what reason did you have?”
Ariane didn’t reply. She wouldn’t tattle either, not if Shania wasn’t saying anything. And Shania wasn’t. But Ariane suddenly realized that Shania didn’t have to say anything. She was looking at Mr. Stanton, and when he turned her way, she…simpered. Until that moment, it was a word Ariane had read in books, but never seen in action.
Shania was tall and…well-developed. And she was wearing a low-cut, form-fitting sleeveless blouse and tight, hip-riding jeans that would have gotten her arrested if they were slung any lower. A green jewel twinkled in her exposed belly button. Ariane didn’t have a chance.
“We were just talking, Mr. Stanton.” Shania’s talking-to-the-vice-principal voice was considerably deeper and breathier than her swearing-at-Ariane voice. “I asked her about her family, and she flipped out.”
“Hmmm.” Mr. Stanton’s gaze lingered on Shania just a second longer than was absolutely necessary, then he looked at Ariane. “Ariane?”
Ariane looked at the floor. Shania had insulted her, but she had started the fight. She should have known better. She did know better. New kids didn’t do that sort of thing.
Not unless they wanted their whole school year to be a nightmare.
Mr. Stanton sighed. “You’d better come with me to the office, Ariane. You girls clear out.”
The quartet left, murmuring. Just before disappearing around the corner, Shania shot a farewell look at Ariane, a look full of triumph – and threat.
It’s gonna be a hell of a year, Ariane thought. Mr. Stanton watched her gather her fallen books and put them in her locker, then led her through the deserted hallways to the office. As they walked, he lectured the empty air in front of him, never even glancing at Ariane.
“I know you’ve had some…family difficulties, but this school has a zero-tolerance policy toward fighting. There are consequences.”
“I’m afraid it’s automatic. Three days for a first offense. A week for a second. Third time, automatic expulsion.” He stopped so suddenly Ariane almost ran into him. “What is it, Wally?”
“I forgot to get you to sign my excuse note, sir,” said a boy’s voice, though Ariane couldn’t see anyone from behind Mr. Stanton. She stepped to the side and saw a skinny kid who looked like he belonged in middle school, not high school. His shock of red hair appeared as though he’d cut it in the dark with a pair of pinking shears, and his blue T-shirt bore the words beam me up, scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here in stark white letters. A dirty tensor bandage was wrapped around his left wrist.
Mr. Stanton sighed. “Refresh my memory, Wally. What excuse note is that?”
“The one excusing me from gym tomorrow. On account of my sprained wrist.”
Mr. Stanton took the proffered note. “How did you sprain your wrist again?” He fished in his pocket for a pen, but Wally beat him to it. The one he held up flashed a red and blue light, like a police car in miniature.
“As in the sport or the farm chore?”
Wally grinned. It transformed his face from merely plain to spectacularly ugly. “Funny, sir! The sport.”
“What were you fencing with? Broadswords?” Mr. Stanton placed the paper Wally had given him against the wall and scrawled his name.
“Epée, but it wasn’t a sword that did it. I tripped and fell.” Wally looked at Ariane and grinned even wider, and she had her second premonition of the afternoon, not a vision this time, just a sudden, certain feeling.
I’m going to be seeing a lot more of Wally.
She groaned inwardly. Oh, great. That’s all I need, to fall in with the school geek brigade. Fencing? Who fences in the 21st century?
Stanton handed Wally the signed note and the blinking pen. “I take it, then, we won’t be seeing you on the Canadian Olympic team any time soon?”
Wally laughed. “No, sir, I don’t think so.” He tucked the note into the right pocket of his jeans and the pen into the left. “Thank you, sir.” He gave Ariane another frightening grin before he dashed away.
She didn’t usually have two premonitions on the same day. Maybe the second one wouldn’t pan out.
God, I hope so.
“No running in the halls!” Mr. Stanton shouted, and Wally slowed to a walk – but Ariane heard him break into a run again the moment he disappeared around a corner.
“That boy will be lucky to make it to twenty,” Mr. Stanton said. “Every time I see him he’s wearing a bandage or a cast. Clumsiest kid I’ve ever…” He stopped, as though suddenly realizing that commenting on another student’s gracefulness, or lack of it, wasn’t proper vice-principalish behavior. “Well. Let’s finish up with you, shall we?”
Walter Michael Arthur Knight the Third, better known at Oscana Collegiate as Wally (by those few who admitted to knowing him at all) knew perfectly well he wasn’t supposed to run in the halls. But he also knew that his sister, Felicia, and her coven (as he thought of them) were lurking somewhere in those same halls, and he wanted to get out of the building before –
The all-too-familiar voice caught him just as freedom came into sight. Ten yards down the hall, daylight streamed through the mesh-covered windows on either side of the double-door exit. For a moment he considered ignoring his sister’s clarion call and sprinting for it, but his escape would only be temporary – they lived in the same house, after all.
Worse, their parents were away – again – and Mrs. Carson, who looked after them during their parents’ many absences, thought Felicia walked on water. Wally she treated more like pond-bottom slime. As long as Felicia didn’t do anything to Wally that left a stain on the carpet, Mrs. Carson wouldn’t intervene.
So he skidded to a halt and turned to look in the direction of the voice. As he’d feared, the whole coven was there: Felicia, her best friend Shania (She Whose Long Shiny Black Hair Must Be Worshipped), and the other two, whose names Wally was a little vague on. Britney and Tanis, maybe? No, that wasn’t right…
“Hi, Flish,” he said. She hated it when he called her that.
“Shut up.” She pulled her arms out of the red and blue backpack she wore and handed it to him. “Take this home.”
Wally held up his tensor-bandaged arm. “Hello? Sprained wrist?” Actually, it didn’t hurt anymore, but it had gotten him out of gym class. It probably wouldn’t get him out of this, though.
He was right. “Do what you’re told!” Felicia snapped.
Shania laughed. For the first time, Wally noticed the bright red mark on her cheek – and put two and two together. “The new girl sends her love, Shania. I saw her in the hall a minute ago.”
Shania stopped laughing. “That witch!”
Takes one to know one, Wally thought, but he wasn’t suicidal enough to say that out loud. Felicia’s glare already promised retribution later. Better cut my losses. He took the proffered backpack. “When will you be home?” he said. “Mrs. Carson will want to –”
“When I feel like it,” Felicia said. “Tell the old hag I’m studying at Shania’s house.”
“Without your books?” Felicia’s glare went from merely shooting daggers at him to firing whole swords. “All right, all right, I’m gone.” He slung the heavy backpack over one shoulder and headed for the door.
So the new girl stood up to the coven, he thought as he trudged home. And left a mark on Shania.
He grinned. Now that sounds like someone worth getting to know!
Mr. Stanton ushered Ariane through the door of the school office and pointed her to a chair worn to greasy smoothness by years of fidgety teen butts. “Have a seat. I have to prepare a letter for you to take home to your par…um, guardian.”
Ariane watched Mr. Stanton move behind the long counter and disappear through another door into his own office. She twisted around to look up at the clock above her head. Great. She’d be half an hour late getting home, at least. Aunt Phyllis would have something to say about that. Aunt Phyllis might have gray hair and stand barely five feet tall, but she was no pushover, and she’d made it clear to Ariane from the moment she’d moved in that she expected rules to be obeyed and would tolerate no nonsense.
Worse, Aunt Phyllis had an overactive imagination. If I’m very late she’ll be convinced I’ve been raped or murdered or run away with someone I met in an Internet chat room.
Ariane felt a pang of guilt. She couldn’t blame Aunt Phyllis for worrying about her…or for being strict. Aunt Phyllis was her mother’s elder sister and her only living relative, but she’d been in the hospital recovering from surgery when Ariane’s mother had disappeared. Ariane had gone through two foster homes – her unhappiness matched only by that of the foster parents who had to deal with her – before Aunt Phyllis finally felt she could take her in. Between Aunt Phyllis’s guilt over that and her grief over the disappearance of her little sister, her overprotectiveness was understandable.
But still stifling, annoying, and, considering Ariane was fifteen years old and capable of looking after herself, more than a little insulting.
A laser printer on the counter whirred to life and spat out a piece of paper. Ariane snorted. Capable of looking after myself? Oh, yeah, I’ve sure proved that today, haven’t I?
Mr. Stanton emerged, retrieved the piece of paper, pulled a ballpoint from a canister of pens next to the printer, and signed the document with the same overdone flourish he’d used on Wally’s excuse note. “This letter explains that you’ve been suspended for three days for fighting. This is Thursday, so that means you return to school on Wednesday. After that, you’ll have supervised detention for a week – one hour after school, in the library, every day.” He folded the letter and tucked it inside an envelope he pulled from under the counter. He licked and sealed the envelope, then came around the counter and held it out to her. “This has to be signed by both you and your guardian and brought back to the office next Wednesday before you go to class. And don’t think you can just skip off to the mall every day and not tell your aunt. I’ll be phoning her tomorrow morning.”
“I know the drill.” Ariane took the letter and shoved it into the inside pocket of her leather jacket. “Is that all?”
“That’s all.” Mr. Stanton frowned. “Ariane, you’re not off to a very good start here at Oscana. I hope this helps you straighten up and fly right.”
Ariane turned her back on him and left without a word.
Aunt Phyllis’s house was only two blocks east and one block south of the school. Huge elms stood guard over the street and muttered to themselves in the prairie wind like senior citizens complaining about rheumatism. Although, Ariane thought as she walked beneath them, the trees were more likely to be grumbling about the Dutch elm disease stalking the Regina countryside.
An old spruce towered above Aunt Phyllis’s front yard, scratching at the sky with its needles. At its base a red, green, and blue garden gnome, leaning at the same angle as the tower of Pisa, tipsily watched over the crumbling walk leading up to Aunt Phyllis’s door.
Like most of the houses in this older part of the city, Aunt Phyllis’s was tall and narrow. Ariane had never understood why the early city planners had made the lots so skinny. Maybe the plains were so vast and intimidating the early citizens of Regina felt the need to huddle close to their neighbors. In any event, there was barely room to walk between Aunt Phyllis’s house and the houses on either side.
While the neighbors’ houses had been renovated recently, Aunt Phyllis’s had not. Its white stucco walls and green trim badly needed painting, its yard hadn’t been mowed since July, and the lilac bushes on either side of the gray concrete porch had gone so long without pruning that they completely obscured the front windows. The house had a neglected, absent-minded look, reminding Ariane of a homeless man with a scraggly beard – the kind that talks to himself.
It wasn’t that Aunt Phyllis didn’t care about her house’s appearance. She just had zero interest in yard work – Ariane took after her in that respect – and she didn’t have the money to hire a house painter or a gardener. Formerly a secretary for the provincial department of social services, Aunt Phyllis had taken early retirement at age fifty to devote herself to various non-profit community organizations. She lived off her pension, her savings, and the modest annual income provided by the interest on the small inheritance her father, Ariane’s grandfather, had left for her.
Ariane had already pulled the school’s letter from her coat, but now she tucked it away again. Aunt Phyllis doesn’t need this aggravation tonight. The school will phone her tomorrow. That’s soon enough.
She climbed the porch and used her key to let herself in. As she unlocked the inner door and stepped into the hallway, the door’s hinges squawked like a chicken being strangled.
“Is that you, Ariane?” Aunt Phyllis’s voice came through the open French doors to Ariane’s right. To her left, a staircase led to a small landing, where it turned and continued to the upstairs hall. Directly ahead, a swinging door led to a tiny green and white kitchen.
Ariane looked up the stairs, thinking longingly of the sanctuary of her room, but then sighed and replied, “Yes, Aunt Phyllis.” She stepped through the French doors into the living room, where too many small, dark paintings jostled for space on the beige-papered wall, and too much overstuffed furniture jostled for space on the beige-carpeted floor. Every piece of furniture boasted a unique flowered pattern in a unique color scheme – each uniquely ugly. Aunt Phyllis was sitting in her favorite armchair, holding a newspaper. “Where were you?” she said. “I was beginning to worry.”
Aunt Phyllis was small – “petite,” she said. Her gray hair swirled dramatically around her head and only the iron grip of a prodigious amount of hairspray kept it immobile. In her neatly-pressed pink slacks, white blouse, and pink jacket, she looked like she’d just returned from an 80s-themed party, even though as far as Ariane knew she hadn’t left the house all day. (“You never know when someone will drop by,” she’d said once. “Or when you’ll have a stroke and have to be taken to hospital on a stretcher. I don’t want those paramedics to think I’m a slob.”)
“I had to talk to a teacher about something after school,” Ariane said. It wasn’t exactly a lie.
“About what?” Aunt Phyllis said, neatly folding her paper and placing it on the round brass-topped table next to her chair.
Ariane shrugged. “Just…how I’m getting along. Stuff like that. Checking up on the new kid, I guess.”
“Hmmm.” Aunt Phyllis didn’t sound entirely convinced, but she didn’t pursue the matter. “Well, at least you’re here. Let’s get dinner on the table.”
The rest of the evening passed normally. They ate dinner – shepherd’s pie, green peas, and spinach salad. Ariane cleared the table and started the dishwasher. They watched an episode of Are You Being Served?, an old British sitcom Aunt Phyllis was addicted to and which Ariane tolerated. Ariane started the science fiction novel she’d bought over the weekend. She didn’t mention her suspension from school, and she didn’t show the letter to Aunt Phyllis.
At about ten o’clock Aunt Phyllis went to her room. Ariane followed her up the stairs a few moments later, but didn’t go to bed right away. Instead she lay on her dark blue bedspread reading and listening to music on her MP3 player. It was close to midnight before she pulled out the ear buds and changed into her favorite pajamas: the pink ones covered with cartoons of cows wearing tutus. Seeing herself in the bathroom mirror, she grinned. Wouldn’t Shania love to get a look at these! she thought. She turned on the water and plunged her hands into it and –
– the bathroom vanished.
Ariane stood on the shore of a lake. Cool air pressed the thin fabric of a filmy white gown against her body. Cold water lapped her bare feet. The sun beat down on wind-ruffled water that shattered the reflected light into a million shards of eye-hurting brilliance.
The water began to bubble. Foam and spray leaped into the air – and then the blade of a sword emerged, point thrusting toward the cloudless sky. Sunlight flashed along its polished length. Higher and higher it rose, until its hilt burst from the lake, gripped by a hand as white as carved marble. Drops of water fell from it like liquid diamonds…
…and then, with a sudden, dizzying shift of perspective, Ariane found herself beneath the waves, looking up at the sword, and realized the hand was her own.
Abruptly, Ariane returned to the bathroom. Her hands were still under the faucet, and her blue eyes stared at her from the mirror, stark against her white face and dark brown hair. She jerked back from the sink as though the lukewarm water had burned her.
What the…? She’d gotten used to – sort of – her occasional premonitions. But that…that had been something completely different.
She touched the water with her right index finger, then put her whole hand into the stream again, but nothing happened.
Maybe I’ve been reading too much fantasy. Shaking her head, she prepared to brush her teeth.
But in the back of her mind, she remembered overhearing her mom, just before she disappeared, complaining to Aunt Phyllis on the phone about vivid daydreams, and remembered the terror she’d felt, worrying that her mother might have a brain tumor. Could the same thing be happening to her?
She shook her head again, harder, as though she could fling the thought away like a dog shedding water. It was just a daydream. Nothing else. I’ve got a lot on my mind.
She went to bed, but tossed and turned for an hour. Finally she sat up, flicked on her bedside lamp, and set her alarm clock for an hour earlier than usual.
She didn’t want to have to tell Aunt Phyllis in the morning why she wasn’t going to school. Let the school break the news to her. Ariane could explain later what had really happened.
She turned off the light, lay down again, and finally drifted to sleep.
When the alarm shrilled in the morning, she was tempted to roll over and go back to sleep. She forced herself to roll out of bed and stagger to the shower instead.
Her brain was still so fogged with sleep that she didn’t even think about the previous night’s vision as she slipped under the spray of hot water. The water touched her skin, and –
Ariane was standing upright in a turquoise lake. Beneath her feet was nothing but water, but it supported her weight as surely as stone or earth. Though her head was submerged, she didn’t need to struggle to breathe. Her filmy gown billowed around her but didn’t drag her down.
At arm’s length over her head she held a sword, the blade in the open air, her hand holding the hilt just above the surface of the water. She could feel icy rivulets, dripping from the blade, running over her fingers and wrist.
She heard a creak and splash: a boat was moving toward her, a lone man pulling at the oars. The rippling surface of the water distorted his face and figure. He stopped rowing. The boat slid closer. He leaned over the gunwale, reaching for the sword. His fingers brushed hers as he took the hilt from her, and at his touch –
Ariane returned to the shower, and to the water cascading from her shoulders, down her back and legs. Shuddering, she twisted the tap closed, then stood dripping while her mind raced. One hallucination she could rationalize as a daydream, stress, tiredness – but two?
Am I sick? Am I going crazy?
She couldn’t ask Aunt Phyllis that. Not yet.
But she couldn’t bring herself to resume her shower. She dried, dressed, pulled on her old motorcycle jacket, and headed downstairs. Scary visions or not, she still wanted to be out of the house before Aunt Phyllis woke up.
The hinges on the front door shrieked when she tugged it open. Ariane held her breath and waited to see if the noise had woken her aunt, but she didn’t hear anything.
She relaxed, then jumped when something small and black darted through the door and over her feet. “Pendragon!” she said, much louder than she’d intended.
“Mrrrow?” The black cat wound himself around her ankles, then trotted toward the kitchen and looked back expectantly. “Mrrree?”
“You’ll just have to wait until Aunt Phyllis is up!” Ariane whispered. Which she’ll be any minute if I don’t get out of here!
Was that the creak of an upstairs floorboard? Ariane darted into the entryway, pulling the inside door shut behind her. The outside door was unlatched, which was how Pendragon had managed to get in and give her an early-morning heart attack. She went out, then turned and gave the outside door a good hard shove. It closed with a thump, just as Ariane heard Aunt Phyllis’s voice calling out a query. She turned and fled, running until she was safely down the street and out of sight of Aunt Phyllis’s bedroom window.
Slowing to a walk, she continued north to College Avenue, then turned west. She passed Oscana Collegiate and kept going without even glancing at it. Yeah, that’ll show it, she thought. Then she laughed, amused as she often was, by her silliness. It’s just a building, dummy.
And the trees lining the sidewalk were just trees, but when she glanced up, their interlocking branches made her think of skeletal hands joining bony fingers.
Too much imagination. It was Aunt Phyllis’s favorite Ariane-specific criticism. Maybe it runs in the family, Ariane thought, remembering that just yesterday she’d been complaining to herself about her aunt’s overactive imagination.
“You spend too much time in your imagination, Ariane,” Aunt Phyllis had told her more than once. “You need to spend more time dealing with the real world.” And maybe she was right…Ariane’s overactive imagination was always leaking into the real world. Why else would she have imagined herself holding up a sword from beneath a lake? Too much imagination.
Old university buildings made of red brick and Tyndall stone loomed in the mist ahead of her like gothic castles, complete with battlemented towers. There you go again! That building’s a movie soundstage now. It’s hardly likely to be haunted.
She walked south, behind the old buildings, through parking lots and broad grass lawns, toward Wascana Lake. The mist thickened as she approached the water, but she didn’t mind the cold and damp. In fact, she liked it.
She supposed this was the difference between Aunt Phyllis’s imagination and her own. Aunt Phyllis had no trouble imagining all the things that could have happened to Ariane if she were a few minutes late coming home from school. But that was because Aunt Phyllis’s imagination fed on TV news and lurid newspaper headlines. Whereas Ariane’s…
Ariane’s fed on this.
The lake stretched out before her, the pewter-colored water fading away into a thick blanket of fog after only a few yards. She could be in any place, any time. That mist might hide a ruined castle, a drowned city, a giant iceberg, a pirate ship, a submarine, or a hideous monster. Aunt Phyllis would have told her to stop being silly. Ariane knew the tiny lake contained nothing but a few small islands. The largest, Willow Island, no more than thirty or forty yards from where she stood, was a favorite picnic spot. And although a grand building did indeed dominate the far side of the lake, it wasn’t a castle or a drowned city: it was the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, a hang-out for politicians and lobbyists, not princes and wizards.
Several good-sized boulders lined the shore where Ariane stood, just at the end of a small parking lot. She sat down on one and pulled her knees to her chest, resting her chin on them and gazing into the fog. She loved Aunt Phyllis, she supposed. And she knew she ought to be grateful to her aunt for agreeing to take care of her after her mother’s disappearance…
Her breath caught in her throat. Grief leaped out of hiding and seized her heart in its cold, black claws, and, for a moment, more than just mist blurred her vision.
And in that instant, Ariane heard two things:
From behind her, the sound of a bicycle skidding to a halt.
In front of her, rising from the lake, a strange chanting.
And then the mist began to glow.
Chapter Two: The Staircase in the Lake
Wally’s evening at home progressed pretty much as he’d expected. Mrs. Carson, she of the pinched expression and (Wally suspected) never-pinched behind, was put out that one of her charges would not be present for the pasta dinner she had planned, and blamed him for Felicia’s absence.
“You should have told her to come home at once,” Mrs. Carson scolded him. “Honestly, Walter, when are you going to learn a little responsibility?”
Wally had long ago given up trying to argue Mrs. Carson out of her passionate belief in his sister’s infallibility. Maybe Flish’s little clique really is a coven, he thought. Maybe they’ve put a spell on Mrs. Carson.
On second thought, that couldn’t be true, or he would’ve been turned into a toad by now.
With Felicia absent, Mrs. Carson wasn’t about to waste her time on pasta, so Wally had to make do with cold salmon sandwiches and the wilted remnants of the previous night’s salad. He retreated to his room as soon as he could, and spent the evening surfing the Web and playing the real-time strategy game he’d bought over the weekend. Normally, he preferred first-person shooters and flight simulators, but the game’s medieval setting intrigued him, and he was beginning to find building castles and mustering armies addictive. After an hour, he took off the tensor bandage he’d been wearing at school. It itched, and it wasn’t like his wrist was sore any more. He’d put it back on tomorrow, just in case Mr. Stanton saw him and started asking questions.
He kept playing, but hit the pause key when he heard his bedroom door open. Mrs. Carson, for all her faults, always knocked. Which meant –
Whack! The slap on the back of his head almost pushed his nose into his keyboard. He spun his chair to face Felicia. “Hello to you, too. And, for the record – OW!”
“That’s for getting smart with my friends,” his sister said. “Where are my books?”
“I put them in your room.”
“You went into my room without permission?”
“Logically, ‘take my books home’ implied permission to put them in your room –”
“You never go in my room unless I’m there to let you in. Which I won’t. Got it?”
Wally sighed. “Got it.”
“Good.” Felicia turned to go.
“So what are you going to do to that new girl?” Wally heard himself say the words, but he obviously hadn’t consulted his brain first. When would he learn to keep his big mouth shut?
Felicia stopped in the doorway and turned around. “What do you care?”
He shrugged. “I ran into her in the hall. She seemed nice.”
“She’s a ratty foster brat, and she’s going to get what’s coming to her. That’s all you need to know.” Felicia strode across the room and leaned into his face. “Stay away from Ariane if you know what’s good for you. I don’t want my brother hanging out with trash like that.”
Wally rubbed the back of his still-stinging head and looked up at his sister as she straightened. Way up. Felicia was a foot taller than him even when he was standing. He kept waiting for his fabled adolescent growth spurt in the hope it would even things up, but so far he’d been disappointed. Until it happened, he remained at her mercy when it came to physical confrontation. Which, with Felicia, it always did.
He had memories of a big sister who took him to movies and malls and midways, but then he also had memories of parents who took him to the playground, came to his school plays, and put him in his PJs at night. Now his parents were never home, and his sister wished she wasn’t. Wally figured the two things were related, but knowing part of the reason Felicia was the way she was didn’t change the fact she could – and would – mop the floor with him if he crossed her.
That didn’t mean he always had to do what she wanted. It just meant he had to be smart enough not to get caught. And if she wanted him to stay away from the new girl, Ariane, he’d have to be extra careful not to get caught.
“Got it,” he said. “Hadn’t you better get going on your homework?”
She shoved his chair so that it crashed into the computer desk. The computer beeped and rebooted, wiping out a good twenty minutes of game play. Felicia stalked out and slammed the door behind her. A Boba Fett action figure fell off the bookshelf by the door, scattering tiny toy missiles across the carpet.
Wally picked up Boba and put him back in his proper place next to R2-D2. Then he eased the door open and peered into the hallway. Felicia seemed to be safely out of the way, so he went across the hall to the bathroom and got ready for bed. When he returned to his room, he fired up his handheld video game and battled space aliens until he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.
Wally woke to the sight of gray light and thick mist outside his bedroom window. It was still too early for school, but ever since talking to Flish had become such a pain – sometimes literally – he’d tried to avoid her first thing in the morning. Over the summer he’d taken to getting up an hour before she did and riding his bike around the lake a couple of times to enjoy the peace and quiet.
As usual, no one stirred as he left through the side door. Mrs. Carson slept over every night, but had stopped making breakfast for them when it became clear neither of them were going to eat it. She’d be out of the house, off to the first of the two or three homes she cleaned during the day, as soon as Flish left for school.
Wally got his bike out of the garage, maneuvering it carefully past his dad’s BMW and his mom’s Prius, and rode it out into the misty street. He loved mornings like this, when the just-rising sun turned the mist gold and wrapped Wascana Lake in a mystical glow.
But halfway through his first lap around the lake, as he rode across the parking lot closest to Willow Island, he saw a glow in the mist that had nothing to do with the rising sun – and, silhouetted against it, the figure of a girl. Even though he couldn’t see her face, he recognized her.
He skidded to a halt.
What’s that chanting?
Fire on Willow Island! Ariane thought. But rather than the red-orange of fire, this glow had the deep blue-green color of a glacier-fed lake in the Rockies.
And the chanting…Ariane had never heard anything like it. She loved the cool, solemn cadences of Gregorian chant, but there was nothing of church or cloister in the sound rising from the water. This sounded wild and untamed, as if the water were singing of rainstorms and creeks and waterfalls and clouds, of all the shapes it had taken, all the places it had been, in its endless, timeless cycle.
Ariane wondered how she could be so sure this was what the chant of wild water must sound like. She had never heard this music before, and yet, she was sure.
She was standing now, though she didn’t remember getting up from the boulder. The chant wasn’t just music: it was a call. The water wanted to feel her touch. And she wanted to feel its touch, too, yearned for it the way a crying baby yearns to be held.
Without even thinking about it, she stepped off the boulder and walked into the lake.
She found herself standing on the water, as easily and naturally as if it were the checkered linoleum of Aunt Phyllis’s kitchen floor. The strange music swelled around her, the water exulting that she had answered its call.
Then the section of the lake in front of her sank and folded like a sheet of silk into a shimmering staircase that led into the depths of the lake.
What depths of the lake? Wascana Lake doesn’t have any depths. Not like that. Think! This can’t be happening. It’s a dream, a hallucination, or another premonition. But her inner voice couldn’t reason away the surging waves of welcoming music and her body’s hungry yearning.
Ariane started down the steps that couldn’t possibly exist. Someone shouted behind her, but the sound was faint and unimportant compared to the singing of the lake.
As she descended, the watery music faded into a quiet, contented hum, like Pendragon’s purring when he lay curled in his favorite patch of sunlight.
Twenty or thirty steps down, she reached a landing. She glanced back at the rectangle of open air through which she had entered, and wondered, with a pang, what would happen to her if the opening closed.
She hesitated, but the water burst into full-throated anxious song, urging her onward. She turned her back on daylight and continued down.
The steps ended in a curtain of falling drops, like a veil of diamond beads. The watery ceiling flickered and quivered above. When Ariane touched the veil, it flowed around her hand. She could feel the cool brush of liquid, but when she drew her fingers back, they weren’t even damp.
“Come in, daughter,” said a feminine voice from beyond the veil. “Don’t be afraid.”
That voice…! “Mom?” Ariane cried. She pushed through the veil.
She found herself in a flickering, shimmering chamber. Shafts of watery sunlight struck the rippled floor, glancing off it in spikes of diamond light that nearly blinded her. “Mom?” she called again.
“No,” answered the voice. “I’m sorry.”
A wrenching sob escaped Ariane. For a moment, she had been so sure.
“Come closer,” the voice called. The shafts of sunlight coalesced around a raised platform at the far end of the chamber, revealing a woman, tall and regal, clad in a long, flowing dress, who was watching her from a liquid throne. Behind the woman, a wall of water fell soundlessly into white foam.
Then Ariane felt a chill, as though she had been plunged into a cold pool. The woman was made of water. Her hair and dress were only foam, and her arms, fingers, neck, and head were as smooth and transparent as polished glass.
The shifting light made it difficult to see her features, but she looked nothing like Ariane’s mother. Still, Ariane felt a warm, though inexplicable, surge of familiarity.
The watery woman smiled. “We meet at last.” Ariane smiled back, wondering how she could ever have mistaken that rippling, musical voice for her mother’s.
She found her own voice. “Who are you?”
The woman spread her glass-like hands. “I am, or was, the Lady of the Lake.”
Ariane frowned. The name sounded familiar…
Faint memories surfaced of a book she had read long ago. “The Lady of the…you mean, like in King Arthur?”
The Lady nodded. “It was I who gave Excalibur to Arthur. I received it again when he lay dying at Camlann. I sent Lancelot to Camelot. And I persuaded Viviane to imprison Merlin more than a thousand years ago.” She shook her head. “Little did I know how short a millennium truly is.”
Ariane stared at the Lady. Everything she said was impossible, but also impossible not to believe. After all, Ariane was standing in a chamber deep under the water of Wascana Lake – deeper, in fact, than the lake itself! – conversing with a living water-sculpture.
The strangeness overwhelmed her. Her knees gave way and she sat down heavily on the watery floor – a dry watery floor, she noted with a tinge of hysteria. She pushed her palms against it. It felt like hard rubber. “I don’t understand.” Her voice came out like a whimper.
The Lady stepped down from the dais, and knelt beside her. Her transparent hand caressed Ariane’s cheek for a moment, her cool fingers as solid as her own. “You look very like your mother,” she said softly, then took Ariane’s hand and pulled her to her feet. “I am not a ghost or a hallucination. I am as real as you. And I will explain everything.” The Lady looked at the veil behind Ariane. She released her, and strode toward it. “But I would prefer to explain it” – she thrust her hand through the drops – “without eavesdroppers.”
Wally barely registered the strange glow or the alien music before Ariane stepped off the boulder. For a moment, all he could see was her head and shoulders. Then she strode into the lake and disappeared completely.
“Ariane!” Wally shouted, dropping his bike and sprinting across the parking lot toward the water, certain for a moment she was trying to kill herself – then wondering, logically, if the water was even deep enough to drown in. But when he looked over the edge of the boulder and saw Ariane walking down a staircase made of water, the logical part of his brain ran away and hid – which was probably why he jumped off the boulder and followed her.
He walked slower than Ariane, pausing to poke at the wall, which flowed away from his finger as soon as he tried to touch it. The steps felt solid but slightly springy beneath his feet, like a gym mat.
He hesitated at the landing. Ariane had vanished, presumably through the strange curtain of water droplets at the bottom of the second flight of steps. If he followed, he would lose sight of the comforting rectangle of daylight that was his only connection with the world above. But Ariane might be in trouble. That fear – and his own curiosity – drove him forward.
He heard a sound like rippling water that, as he reached the curtain, changed into a woman’s voice. He froze.
“…how short a millennium truly is.”
“I don’t understand,” Ariane replied.
The woman’s voice murmured something Wally didn’t catch. He leaned in to hear better, his hair brushing the liquid veil. “I am not a ghost or a hallucination,” he heard then. “I am as real as you. And I will explain everything. But I would prefer to explain it –”
Without warning, a cold hand burst through the beads of water and seized Wally’s wrist, the grip so strong it made his almost-healed sprain throb anew. He yelped and tried to pull free, but he might as well have been tugging on a mountain.
“– without eavesdroppers!” The hand dragged Wally through the curtain.
The Lady pulled into the chamber the very last person Ariane expected to see: a boy with unruly red hair and wide green eyes in a face so white every freckle on it stood out as though drawn with a brown felt pen.
“Wally?” Everything around Ariane, still somewhat vague and dreamlike until that moment, firmed into reality with an inaudible click. She couldn’t be imagining it because there was no way she would ever imagine Wally.
Wally opened and closed his mouth like a fish, but no sound came out. He stared at the Lady as though afraid she might turn him into a frog. She probably could if she wanted to, Ariane thought. Certainly the Lady was examining Wally as if she were a biologist and he a particularly peculiar specimen of amphibian. “Incredible,” she murmured. “I didn’t know…I wonder if Merlin…”
She pulled Wally forward, firmly but not roughly. She placed him next to Ariane, then ascended the dais and sat once more on the throne of water. “This is most unexpected. And yet – fortunate, perhaps.”
Ariane stared at Wally. “Fortunate? How?”
“It appears you will have a companion on your quest.”
“Quest?” Ariane’s attention snapped back to the Lady. “What quest?”
The Lady met her gaze steadily. “The quest to recover Excalibur. You must reforge Arthur’s sword and claim it for your own before Merlin does.”