Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  Deirdre volunteered. He told her what to say and do, and, heart beating wildly, she whispered the lightest spell, not even a full illusion, just a semblance of shadow to trick the eye. Frederic seemed to swell up in size.

  Deirdre stared, then squinted. If she looked straight at him, he was normal, but if she didn’t, he seemed to be grown up. Or older, anyway.

  “Distract the ticket seller,” Arthur whispered as they marched to the ticket desk. “Keep her from looking too closely at him.”

  Americans were not used to illusion, so the woman in charge of selling tickets rubbed her eyes. “I want to go,” Deirdre said desperately, and then, with Suzi Martin in mind, she shrilled, “I want to go now! Get me a window seat! I’ll just die if I don’t have a window seat! Do you have a window seat, lady? Something where I can see, but it won’t mess up my hair!”

  Deirdre had forgotten that she was dressed more or less like a boy. Not that it mattered. The ticket lady took one look at her, grimaced when Deirdre started shrieking on a high, desperate note, and couldn’t sell the tickets fast enough. She stamped them in record time, then turned away to gossip about the spooky man with the world’s brattiest kid. She never even noticed Arthur.

  They stayed as close to their boarding gate as they could as they whiled away the long wait. At first they watched the endless stream of people, but gradually boredom and tiredness wore them down. To keep awake, they used up some nickels on pinball machines, until at last the boarding gate for their flight opened.

  Getting on the plane was easier—they had their boarding passes, and just pressed up behind a family where each kid had insisted on holding his or her own ticket. No one said a thing to them, but none of the three relaxed until they settled into their seats, and the doors to the plane shut.

  No pale-eyed, dark-haired men got on board with them. The stewardess gave the speech, to which all three listened seriously (Frederic wondering how they would use a flotation device if the plane fell out of the sky over, say, Montana or Kansas) and another passed out gum.

  Arthur examined his pack of gum, marveling at the thin flatness of the pieces—at home, those who harvested gum from trees rolled it into small balls. He liked the tin foil, and folded it neatly in case it might come in useful, then licked the dust on the gum. It tasted good. But by the time the plane began bumping and rolling down the runway, his brow furrowed.

  “What’s wrong? The barf bags are right there,” Frederic said, pointing (and trying to be subtle about leaning away).

  “This gum,” Arthur said as they all leaned back and the plane rattled and vibrated around them, lifting into the sky. “The natural taste of gum, it is masked by this sweetness, which goes away. Now there is no flavor. These ladies should stay with flying this tube with wings, and not make strange gum.”

  Deirdre snickered. “They don’t make it. They give it out so you can chew and not have your ears pop.”

  “But my ears pop anyway,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “This happens when you transfer by magic, too.” He leaned over to glance out the window. The landscape fell away rapidly, the lake a broad stretch of black framed by patches of lights. “This is very fine, to be so high, but I think I prefer magic.”

  “Mom did, too,” Deirdre said. “When she had to come back she read every single magic book she could find.”

  Arthur’s eyes widened. “There is no magic here—that is, the people do not use what there is, yet there are books about magic?”

  “Lots of them,” Deirdre said. “I read ’em, too. The people make them up. Mom and I always hoped one would turn out to be real. But stories about magic? You betcha.”

  “I find that strange,” Arthur admitted.

  “What, stories that never happened, or stories about magic?”

  “Stories about magic where there is no magic.”

  “But some people wish there was.”

  Arthur’s brow cleared. “Oh.”

  He rubbed his nose, and Deirdre realized he was trying not to make a face. So she said it first. “I know. Earth is weird.”

  “Everything is weird,” Frederic said, thinking of Kessler.

  The flight attendants began bringing food carts. At last the kids got a dinner, and they were so hungry everything tasted great.

  After that, silence fell. Frederic, who’d generously let the others sit nearer the window, fell asleep first. Deirdre and Arthur soon after.

  o0o

  Kessler took another cab from Glen Ellyn to the shore of the lake, where he could be closer to the Gate. The farther away from the Gate you transferred, the more wrenching the experience of shifting from one time and space to another.

  Lake Shore was the best transfer site; he’d risked the inner city once or twice, like when Deirdre had pressed the square button on his communications device, and it was wrenching, even sickening—like jumping out of a four story building and then having the building jump on top of you to stuff you back inside.

  He tried twice to transfer, and ended up in Asia, and then in the north in a blizzard. When he recovered from the effects, he was beginning to brace himself for a third try when he realized that someone in Norsunder was playing games with him.

  Someone wanted him to fail.

  He would have to get to the west coast the regular way.

  He hailed a cab and asked how one traveled fast. The cabbie, who believed that all foreigners were idiots, described airports and planes in slow, simple words, and then regretted his little joke when Kessler hired him on the spot to drive him there.

  The cabbie mentally kissed his tip good-bye, but of course he didn’t know that paper money to Kessler was worthless. So he was considerably surprised to get a fifty dollar tip.

  Kessler had appreciated the simple words. Once again he’d gone all day with no meal, and was desperately hungry on top of the ever-present king-sized headache. He arrived, found the display boards the cabbie had described, and discovered that there were two flights to Los Angeles, one leaving in less than five minutes, and one hours off.

  Of course he would take the next one.

  He bolted for the ticket booth, threw down money, and made it through the gate with seconds to spare—not seeing the children at the other end of the concourse, killing time at some pinball machines before they boarded their flight.

  So while the kids slept their way over the western half of the country, Kessler was treated to three flights and two long waits in-between. The kids would have reached Los Angeles at dawn, hours ahead of Kessler—except that L.A. was shrouded in a deep morning fog, so planes circled round and round like giant raptors above the city. The kids slumbered on, the city hidden by a brownish gray blanket beneath them.

  When at last they could land, the Chicago plane was first... and the Albuquerque one right after it.

  Most of the passengers had dropped off to sleep. The flight attendants woke everyone up and the plane filled with the smell of coffee and cigarettes, which made Arthur’s face whiten. Frederic kept eyeing him, and finally plucked one of the bags from the back of the seat in front. “Here. In case.”

  “Waste Spell works,” Arthur whispered, swallowing painfully.

  The planed lurched, thundered, then bumped down and rolled slowly to a stop. Deirdre immediately began to worry, and shut her eyes, wishing they could somehow get below to where they kept the baggage, and ride down on the conveyor belt. Could she bribe the baggage men with a twenty?

  But there was no getting down there. The kids pressed up behind a bulky man, Deirdre hopping on her toes to peek over his shoulder from time to time, as they got off the plane.

  The sea air revived Arthur almost immediately. They followed the crowd, watching in all directions, just as Kessler’s plane was touching down.

  Through another huge concourse, and down some long corridors that would have been fun to play a chase game on, then at last they spotted the wall of glass doors that looked out onto a weird sort of a building, a round one lifted into the sky on white a
rched legs. They paused to stare at it, as Kessler, waiting to deplane, overheard someone laughing about the Chicago plane having landed just before them.

  The Chicago plane? He had to see who had gotten off.

  “What is that? The local king’s palace?” Arthur asked, pointing to the arched white building.

  “We don’t have kings,” Frederic said. “Hey, there are a bunch of taxis.”

  Kessler got to the bottom of the ramp by pushing past people, and ignoring the irate protests behind him. He began to run.

  “Same country as before,” Deirdre said. “We’re just at one end. Here, let’s hurry.”

  “How do they govern without kings? Councils? Guilds?”

  “No, everybody votes.” Frederic frowned. “He can’t possibly know we are here. Why run? My head hurts a little. Anyway, you can vote if you’re over twenty-one, that is.”

  Arthur shook his head. “It must take a year to count that many votes, in this huge kingd—country.”

  Deirdre and Frederic had gone through American History—not the fun stories about the Swamp Fox getting away from the evil Tarleton, or the Founding Fathers meeting in secret—but memorizing lists of important dates, men, and lots about acts and trade. Neither of them wanted to explain, especially when they were hungry, grubby, and still tired.

  “Telegraph, I think,” Frederic said.

  “In the old days, it did take weeks,” Deirdre put in. “And it was only thirteen itty bitty states then.” She pulled open a cab door.

  The cabbie, seeing three kids, said, “Gwan, scram!”

  Kessler pounded out of the doors and scanned in both directions along the cab stands. Was that three kids, down that way, just piling into a vehicle?

  One more he began to run.

  Deirdre held up her wad of bills. Thinner now, but enough for the cabbie to turn around again. “Where to?”

  Deirdre shoved her mother’s piece of paper at him, and the car lurched forward, the cabbie in conflict. The address the kid had shown him was scarcely three miles away—and here was sixty or seventy miles of L.A. as a possibility. What disgusting luck! He was contemplating running around just a little—he did have a living to earn—when he became aware of terse, worried voices from the back seat.

  “I’m sure that was him,” the fat boy said. “Getting into the cab behind us.”

  “I hope you’re wrong,” said the one dressed like a boy, but sounded like a girl.

  “If you think that was him, it probably was,” said the one with an accent. He leaned back, eyes closed. “Oh, my stomach does not like these things. Is he in another one?”

  “Yes,” came two voices.

  The cabbie grinned. His favorite show was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “Want me to lose ’em?”

  “Yes!” three voices proclaimed. And then, “Whoooooo!” as they pressed back against their seats.

  In the next cab, Kessler thumped the worn leather seat with his fist. “Follow that vehicle,” he ordered.

  The cabbie did not like this guy. He was rude, and he had some kind of accent, like maybe he was a Commie or a Kraut, except he was too young to be from the Nazi days—which he remembered.

  “That guy will lose his cab license, driving like that—look! Running a red light... you run a red on Sepulveda, the cops will get you every time...”

  Arthur felt magic strengthen around him; they were truly in proximity to a Gate.

  Just as well, because once again his stomach was in revolt.

  Deirdre frowned anxiously at him as he urped and gulped, but when he didn’t barf all over the car, she sat back. Frederic loved the swerving, making appreciative noises that caused the cabbie to grin.

  But finally the long ride was over—the cabbie saw Arthur’s green face, and not knowing about the Waste Spell, decided to cut the wild ride short. He did not want to be mopping out his cab.

  The kids piled out, blinking in the glary sunshine. Deirdre threw the rest of the money at the delighted man, who roared off. Arthur was so repelled by the smoke that he grabbed the others’ hands and did the magic, making a fervent effort that wrenched them into the space between worlds.

  Fourteen: Wende Meets Kids, and Kids Meet Wende

  Wende thoroughly enjoyed her first ship journey. The work was easy, the food much like what she was used to, and the other kids’ stories were fascinating to listen to. Wende didn’t talk much, which was fine: most would rather be listened to than listen, unless there’s something exciting going on, and Wende knew better than to yap about Norsundrians, weird metal things, or even her history as a Parleb. Besides, she wasn’t a Parleb anymore. She was Wende Beditha—she’d picked the name herself.

  That is, she’d be Wende as soon as she landed.

  That happened all too soon. They docked at the Tornacio Islands. There in the harbor city carved into the sides of the steep island hills, Wende found the Guild Hall and the Destination everyone had told her about. She bought a magical transfer to the capital of Mearsies Heili, which landed her on a high mountain overlooking what seemed to be an entire kingdom. Higher even than where she stood was a glistening white palace.

  Wende stared up at it in doubt. Funny. The palace at home just made her laugh and reach for a broom, but this one, well, it made her think about her dusty toes for the first time ever, and her raggedy sailor togs.

  Behind her was a small town, the buildings cheerful, with the last blooms of flowers in pots along window sills. Winter was nigh here, too.

  She looked at the people, relieved when she caught the eye of a girl her age carrying a basket of bread loaves. “Where can I find queen or the princess?” Wende asked.

  She had forgotten language differences, and was surprised when the girl answered in a foreign tongue—but Wende heard the words in her own: “The queen is in Wesset South, I’m told. The princess is almost never here. She and the other girls live most of the time down in the forest.”

  “How do I get there?” Wende asked. “Looks to me like I’m pretty high up.”

  “There’s a road down, or you can get a transfer at the Guild Hall,” the girl said cheerfully, and pointed at the biggest building besides the palace, across a square full of busy people.

  So Wende got transferred down to where there was a crossroads. She couldn’t read any of the signs, so she just shrugged and started hiking resolutely toward the broad green forestline covering most of the western horizon. Looked mighty big, but Wende figured, sooner started, sooner she’d find someone.

  As it happened it didn’t take all that long. She’d just stopped to get a drink from a stream when kids’ voices rang through the trees.

  And here’s where we finally come in.

  We think there was a transfer Destination near the Magic Lake a zillion years ago, where there’s just smooth grass now, on the very edge of the forest. We think that because this is where people who transfer into Mearsies Heili without a specific Destination always seem to appear. Or get dumped.

  Anyway, Wende was drawn by our voices. This was just as several of us girls were passing on patrol along this area (which the Chwahir always nosed out for some reason, or maybe it was just Jilo’s being annoying) because we had also been drawn by the sound of kid voices.

  “Hey!” exclaimed a girl dressed in funny clothes—Earth jeans and T shirt!

  “Wow, that was barnacle-blasted good,” Wende exclaimed, and of course none of the three newcomers in the funny clothes understood her.

  “Who are you?” Deirdre asked, and then frowned. “Why isn’t the language spell working? It did for my mom.”

  Frederic turned out his hands, and sighed. “Because this is always my luck?” But he didn’t say it with much conviction because, hey, he’d just managed to do what he’d never expected to—get off Earth.

  I heard that much as we bucketed up. I took a look at the three in Earth clothes and Wende in sailor togs like the ship kids wore around the Tornacios’ main harbor, and knew that we’d just knuckled into somebody else’
s adventure.

  Grateful for my medallion, which gives us the Universal Language Spell, I said, “Welcome. Who are you kids?”

  “I’m Deirdre, that’s Frederic, and that’s... oh, um, well, we call him Arthur.”

  Wende was small, scrawny, and round-faced, with a beaky nose like we were to discover was common to Delfin Islanders, and pretty much brown in coloring, like most humans on S-d. Her eyes widened. “Hey. How come I understand this here lingo I don’t know?”

  “Cuz of magic,” I said. “Who are you?”

  “I’m Wende. Is this Everon?”

  “Nope. Mearsies Heili.”

  Arthur rubbed his eyes. He seemed about to speak, then shook his head. Of all of them, he looked the worst, bag-eyed and droopy.

  Wende looked disappointed, then obviously tried to hide that, and be polite. “Is that so? Who are you?”

  “I’m Cherene Jennet, and this here is—”

  “Cherene Jennet!” the Earth girl exclaimed. “My mom knew you!”

  “Your mom?” I squawked. “I’ve missed a couple of birthdays, but not enough of ’em to know somebody’s mom! Er, who is she?”

  “Where’s Everon, please?” Wende asked past me, looking around.

  “Never heard of it,” I said, turning back.

  “My mom’s name is Elian. She was born a Sherwood, which is how she got here, but now her last name is Weiss, same as mine.”

  “Sorry, wrong Cherene Jennet—though watch out world if there are two of us!”

  “Doesn’t anyone know where Everon is?”

  “Why?” Arthur asked. Tired and strained as he looked, he was paying attention.

  “Takin’ this to ’em.” Wende pulled something out of her pocket and held it flat on her palm for us all to see.

  I had just enough time to make out what looked like a half-dollar, except it curved gently so as to fit onto a palm. The carvings were really faint and half smoothed out.

 
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