Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  Arthur drew his breath in sharply. We all turned his way. He really looked tense. I mean, his face turned a pre-barf-attack sort of color.

  “Hide it,” he said in a low, sharp voice. “Quick.”

  Wende looked affronted—like she was about to be accused of thieving. “How come?”

  “Because if any Norsundrian see it, and they have to be combing the world for it, you’re not going to last a heartbeat.”

  “Oh.” Wende’s small, round face now took on the pre-barf ghastly color. “Eh.” She added in a very small voice, and dropped the thing back into her pocket.

  “Is that some kind of nasty magic thing, like our noses will fall off if we touch it?” I asked, scowling at Wende’s pocket.

  Arthur rubbed his eyes. “It’s worse than that. If it’s what I think it is. I’ve heard Evend and the world mages talking about them.”

  Now everybody looked around as if the late-season grassy slope and the barren trees somehow held sinister guys dressed in that horrible gray. Not that gray is horrible, it’s just gray, but when you’ve been around Norsundrians, everything that reminds you of them turns icky in your mind ever afterward.

  “Why don’t we take it up to Granny and keep it safe?” I suggested.

  Wende looked relieved. “You got a smart granny, too?”

  “Uh, well, Granny is a nickname for a kid, our queen.”

  “Oh.” Wende looked so disappointed I couldn’t get mad at her for it. “Even if she was a granny as wise as mine, I gotta take this thing to Everon.”

  Arthur said, “Nobody else can touch it, anyway. Only if she’s dead.” He turned to Wende. “That is, I’ll know which one that is if you tell me if you’re the twelfth of your line. That one is protected.”

  Wende’s eyes widened. “I warn’t s’posed to tell anybody that. But, well, if you know already, I’m Beditha XII.”

  Arthur gave a soft whistle. “You’re in more trouble even than I am. Listen, can someone transfer us to Bereth Ferian? My magic is warded. I got us through the Gate, but even so, I’m afraid that might have been traced. If someone can get me home, we can find Everon on the map, and its Destination pattern.”

  “We’d have to ask ol’ Granny—er, Clair—for that kind o’ transfer.”

  “All of us.” Diana jerked her thumb up. “Gettin’ dark. And cold.”

  “And the Chwahir might nose around soon,” I said, as Gwen nodded, eyes wide. She’d clammed up soon as Norsunder was mentioned. Ugh!

  Dark, or something, made the shadows intensify. I didn’t know if it was my imagination or not, but I got that neck prickle of danger.

  “Junky,” I said.

  I didn’t mean to be bossy, but I guess the creepy feeling hit them, too, because no one argued. We put our energy into feet flapping instead of lip flapping, and bucketed to the Junky—Gwen, Diana, and I looking around a LOT before we zapped inside the hollow tree.

  Deirdre and Arthur were shivering by then, having come from summer on Earth. I left Gwen to introduce the new kids to the girls and to get them some eats and hot chocolate while I whizzed upstairs to let Clair know what was going on, and ask about transferring Arthur.

  But when I got to the Destination on the terrace outside the White Palace, I was a few seconds behind a familiar figure—a slight man of medium height, curly black hair, and creepy blue eyes.

  “Kessler!” I squeaked. Twice I’d sort of—not meaning to—tried to kill that man, but he’d gotten himself to Norsunder to get around it. Every time he came back I got even more scared, and since I’d started by being scared of this insanitic, well, you can imagine just how badly my bones were jellying.

  He whirled around, and regarded me with that flat expressionless stare I hated so much. “Where is Deirdre Weiss and Prince Irtur?”

  “I don’t know what you’re blabbing about.” My voice bleated—couldn’t help it.

  Kessler took a step toward me. I raised my hand to make the transfer sign, but Clair appeared, took one look at Kessler, and weird blue light shimmered. It was one of her wards, to prevent dark magic spells being performed in the White Palace. It wouldn’t last—strong magic that went on and on spent the magic. But it might stop a villain long enough for us to get out of reach.

  Kessler stilled, looked around, then vanished.

  Clair said to me, “Go downstairs. I’ll be there as soon as I make certain he hasn’t caused any trouble here.”

  I transferred down to the Junky. “K-k-k-k-ess-blech,” I gibbered.

  “You mean he’s back?” Sherry groaned.

  “Kessler? Name of the creep that’s been chasing us around,” Frederic said.

  “You poor slobs,” I said feelingly, and all the girls agreed.

  Wende looked worried. “He’s after this thingie, you think?” Wende produced her coin that wasn’t a coin.

  Arthur rubbed his head like it hurt. “Not directly. But as soon as Norsunder knows you are here, he’ll no doubt be sent after you as well.”

  Wende sighed, then said stoutly, “Then I guess I better be movin’ me bones on to this Everon. Wherever that is. I don’t want to bring you trouble. Granny always says trouble comes enough without you lookin’ fer it.”

  “We’ll be in extra trouble if Kessler reports you and Arthur. He’s sure to come back with more of his stinky pals.”

  Irene leaned forward. “What exactly does that thingie do? You said they mentioned your name, are they after you, or it?”

  “It.” Wende shrugged. “I think. Warn’t much explanation on the old piece o’ paper stored with it. Just, it was to be kept until the twelfth of us came along. How anyone’d know about me, or even if I’d get born, dunno.”

  Arthur said, “It could be that whoever hid it picked a number that sounded far in the future. Hiding spells cannot be open-ended in light magic, they drain too much magic. Must be closed. They cast as long an enchantment as they could contrive.”

  I nodded. From my sporadic magic studies, I’d learned some similar stuff. “That makes sense,” I said. “You know any more about this thing here? You sure looked like you did, out in the forest.”

  Sherry appeared with the hot chocolate then, and gave Arthur his first. He really did look like he had an awful headache, and he was way too skinny.

  Clair appeared just in time to take a cup.

  I said, “Arthur is going to explain about those coin things.”

  Arthur sipped the chocolate, closed his eyes, and sighed. Then sipped, and sighed again, this time the short, noisy one of decision. “What I know. Those things are called dyra. A dyr—” Long ‘I’ sound, not two vowels, with a breathy ‘eh’ after the r—”was once a powerful light magic aid. Or, Old Magic aid. Don’t ask me the difference between Old Magic and light, because I can’t tell you. I don’t understand it, only that the ‘Old’ refers to Ancient Sartor.”

  “Uh oh,” Clair murmured.

  Arthur gave her a kind of half-smile grimace. “Right. Anything having to do with them is serious. There aren’t many of these objects, and the ones we know about were taken by Norsunder and twisted to evil ends. Did you come from an island, Wende?”

  “Delfina.”

  “Then—if I didn’t get myself mixed up—that dyr right there enchanted two kingdoms.”

  Everybody ughed and weebled at that news.

  Wende dropped it like it had turned red hot. It thunked onto the hard packed dirt main room.

  “Ugh, pick it up,” Sherry said urgently. “Our floor is extremely hard to wash.”

  “That thing requires cootie-izing,” Dhana said.

  Deirdre choked on hot chocolate as Arthur looked puzzled, then Deirdre turned to me.

  “We de-cootie ourselves and anything villains touch,” I explained to her, showing how we brushed ourselves off, dropping the invisible cooties to the ground, then stomping on them.

  It’s not real magic, but it makes us feel better. Especially if we decootie-ize right in front of a villain.

  I said
to Deirdre, “By the way, you knew about me. Did you know about this place, the Junky?”

  “No,” Deirdre said, looking around with longing. “I didn’t.”

  I shivered as if somebody had dropped a handful of snow down the back of my neck.

  “But I know about you,” Arthur said slowly, frowning at Clair’s hair. “You have to be the one who came north, to free Bereth Ferian.”

  Clair dipped her chin down. “Yes. My cousin and I.”

  Arthur rubbed his eyes again. “How strange. How very strange. And here I am—what am I not seeing?”

  “I don’t know about why you’re here now,” Clair said, “but I can explain why I was in Bereth Ferian. An artifact was stolen from us by a Norsundrian. She took it from us as a nasty joke against some other Norsundrians, including Kessler. She had a grudge against us.”

  Arthur sighed. “I have so many questions I’ve no idea where to begin. Perhaps, though, we can ask Evend, if you will just transfer me to Bereth Ferian, as I dare not do it myself.” He was rubbing absently at his arm in a way that looked horribly familiar.

  Clair said, “Warded? Yet you made it through the World Gate?”

  “It seems to me that Kessler had a tracer on me, bringing him here.”

  Clair nodded. “Yes. But Evend will know how to deal with that. So let’s—”

  “Wait,” I said, hating the need to speak. But I hated the memory of that arm rubbing, and what it meant, worse. “Wait. Arthur, you keep rubbing your arm. Do you have one of those nasty Norsunder cuts on you?”

  Arthur gasped. “How did you know?”

  Clair held up both her hands. “CJ, you probably just saved his life.”

  I said to Arthur, “Kessler put one of those on me once. On account of me messing up his plans a while back. That magic on the knife goes into your blood. Maybe that spell doesn’t kill you coming through a World Gate, but I wouldn’t trust a regular transfer.”

  “No,” Clair stated. “No. Arthur, I’m sorry, but I dare not send you home.”

  Wende picked up her dyr. “I guess I’m stuck, too, then. At least until I find someone in Everon I can hand it off to.

  “Not a Norsundrian,” Arthur said. “Please.”

  Wende shook her head. “None o’ them, no.”

  I said to Clair, “He didn’t come back, did he?”

  “Yes, but he tried some kind of search ward. Then left. I think he’s really after Arthur and these others. Not you. This time.”

  I tried not to show how much I was jellying in relief. My total lack of success was obvious when Arthur gave me that wry half-smile, half-grimace. “So you’ve encountered him.”

  “He tried to take over the world,” Clair said.

  Diana had been scowling. Now she looked up. “He knows where we live. That is, when he first got us, they grabbed us here in the forest.”

  Everyone turned her way. Diana usually stayed quiet—she was a listener and doer, not a talker, except maybe when we did funny plays. Her dark eyes were narrowed; she was our best at tracking and sneakery. “He’s smart enough to figure out where the Junky is. Unlike Jilo and the Chwahir fumblers. I think we should go upstairs. At least the White Palace has magical protection. The Junky doesn’t.”

  “I agree,” Clair said.

  Irene had been leaning forward, about to argue, but now she sat back.

  Clair said, “What can you tell us about why Kessler is after you?”

  Arthur said, “At first I thought it was accident. I’m Evend’s heir, but why should that interest Norsunder in me? I don’t know anything about military matters, which I thought interested them most. That and destructive magic. Then when I was at the Base, I overheard some arguing. Most didn’t make sense. Nobody held an important conversation right under my nose. But I got two things. First, they’re hunting for that dyr—and my mother has been studying about them. Second, the high rankers don’t like or trust Kessler.”

  “Why Earth?” Clair asked, leaning forward.

  “They seem to think I have some special ability. Or will have. I don’t quite understand it, but I understood this much: Kessler had to get me completely out of the way, so Evend and my mother couldn’t trace us, while some sort of investigation was going on. As for Kessler, he hated being assigned to guard me, and he hated Earth. He would come back to that apartment tired in the way you get after going through the World Gate a lot.” Arthur sighed. “Bad as it was, that location on Earth was much an improvement over the Base down south of Sartor, where they first held me. So I wonder if he was doing investigations of his own, unknown by both sides, while I sat tied to a chair.”

  “Eugh,” we all said, or variations of.

  Irene sighed loudly. “Not that I want to change the subject—only I do—but I’m getting hungry—” She twirled her empty cup on her finger.

  “Oink oink,” Seshe said cheerily. “Coming in a moment.”

  “Maybe I’ll be done.” Sherry had been sitting cross-legged, sewing a new shirt for Diana, who would wear her clothes to rags and tatters, insisting there was plenty of good in them yet. She wouldn’t actually order anything, but if Sherry made something for her, she felt obliged to wear it. So she’d have a nice new sky-blue top, which would look good against her dusky skin and long dark hair.

  Over dinner, we heard all about Arthur’s, Deirdre’s, Frederic’s, and Wende’s adventures. That business about Deirdre’s mom was totally weird until Clair whispered to me as we were stacking the dirty dishes, “Remember, time in the Gates can be twisty. You might not have met her mom yet.”

  Of course! Time hopped around like a flea with itches—our mayors Klutz and Id had come from a time two hundred years before my time, and Lina had come from a parallel Earth, along with Puddlenose’s pal Christoph.

  By then it had gotten late. As soon as the dinner stuff was cleaned up, we all transferred upstairs to the White Palace, where there was certainly plenty of space for guests—we’ve never been able to get any kind of accurate count of the number of rooms. Talk about time-hopping, some of them seemed to go in and out of time.

  While the rest of us gathered in the kitchen in hopes of dessert (to discover fresh-baked brownies with hot fudge poured over them) Clair and Arthur went to Clair’s magic chambers to talk a little about Bereth Ferian, which she’d really liked, and he missed. Then they turned the subject to the wards on Arthur.

  Arthur was smart, and he’d learned a lot—way more than Clair, though they were more or less the same age—but she’d had more experience of Norsunder. As soon as she saw that line on his arm, made by an 11 knife, she explained to Arthur what she’d learned about how Norsunder put their horrible wards directly into your blood.

  “I still don’t know how to get rid of such wards,” she said, putting her books away. “That magic is too strong, and part of the ward is to turn any magical tries against you.”

  Arthur paled, and sank down onto a chair wearily. “What do I do?” he asked blankly.

  Clair said, “Send a message? That I can do. And keep moving. Kessler can track magic transfers. So you’ve got to go the long way, and stay out of sight.”

  That meant traveling up the entire continent above ours. And then over a long ways.

  “I guess I’d better get started tomorrow,” he said, and looked so unhappy Clair grimaced in sympathy. So far, every experience with Norsunder had been horrible, and she knew he wasn’t going to have a pleasant trip.

  But she sent her message, hoping that the Mage Council in the north would see it, and then she suggested he get some rest.

  That advice he’d been hoping for pretty much since dinner.

  Fifteen: On the Run Again!

  The rest of us had polished off the pan of brownies and Faline took over the Grand Tour. She got sidetracked a few billion times, outlining old adventures as well as talking about some of the odder stuff in the White Palace.

  The visitors were fascinated. I was creeped out because Deirdre, who had never heard of the Junky,
knew a lot of stuff about the White Palace. What did that mean?

  I was glad when we all parted to conk out for the night.

  Did I get any sleep? Ha ha ha!

  I’d just climbed into bed and clapped out my light when Sherry dashed in, her eyes round, and her face pale in the moonlight flooding in through my open windows. “CJ! You’re awake!”

  “If I wasn’t, I am now,” I cracked, and when she paused, I subtly hinted, “Hit the sack, okay?”

  Sherry ignored that. “Somebody is poking around down there.” She pointed at the window. “I mean, outside my room.”

  “There is? Yikes, why didn’t you say so!”

  “I just did.” She gave an uncertain laugh, as if she wasn’t so sure it was a funny.

  We splatted back to her room, our bare feet slapping on the marble floor. Sherry usually sleeps in one of the tower rooms, a round one that lets in light from almost all sides. It is adjacent to the garden terrace outside, which you can get to through the double doors in the ballroom that only use for chase games in winter.

  I dashed to the nearest window, the one overlooking the kitchen garden. “Nothing. Of course it’s dark, so maybe you were fooled?”

  “He isn’t there in the kitchen garden. The air is clearer.”

  “Huh?”

  She moved along the windows. “Creepy atmosphere,” she whispered.

  “Oh.”

  “Think it was ol’ Kessler?”

  “He knows his way around. I bet if it was him, he’d come smashing through the front door. If it’s Puddlenose and Christoph thinking to pull a joke on us, I’ll kill them ten times. No, eleven.”

  “That many?” Sherry asked, and then a short, soft intake of breath. “Uh oh. There.”

  I lowered my voice as I crossed the room to join her at the windows looking in the other direction. “Because they usually turn up right before trouble.”

  Outside, outlined against the pale marble glowing faintly in the moonlight, was the silhouette of a guy about Rel’s age.

  He must have seen us in the window the same moment we saw him, because his face jerked up and he yelled, “Where is it?”

 
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