Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  But we arrived alone, and left the Destination room, let ourselves out of the Guild Hall.

  I barely let the visitors have time to look around. Not that buildings in Mearsies Heili are fancy. I found out when traveling that slant-roofed houses with window boxes during the warm months and tile roofs are common all over in the south half of the world, from our continent, Toar, to Sartor, which sprawls like a gigandor ink stain around a good part of the globe.

  Not that houses are alike everywhere. Hoo wow, have we seen some amazing variations. But here, they’re nothing spectacular. The amazing thing are the huge trees, called Sequoias on Earth, that grow around the lake, and up into the mountains of Seram Aru to the west of us.

  “Let’s get horses,” I said, leading the way across the town square, toward we were likely to find either an inn or a stable, whichever came first. Though I didn’t have any money, I knew Clair’s name would get us some horses.

  I’d thought we’d just ride south over the border, in case there were any nasty tracers. I was sure we’d lost the villains, but as soon as we hit the open road, Guess What.

  Way ahead we spotted a lone horseman, and we just knew.

  “How many scuzzbuckets do they got?” I yelled, mad as baggies.

  “Well if this is the main road,” Arthur began reasonably.

  I didn’t want to be reasonable, I wanted to be rid of them. I was angry because I was kind of in charge, that is, Arthur and Wende seemed to be depending on me, and so far all I’d done was get us chased—while we were busy going in the wrong direction.

  We turned around and rode back. The 11 began chasing, but the horses stayed even, and we reached the city, and returned the animals to the inn. It was late at night now, but none of us were tired, after sleeping all day.

  We left the inn and slunk along fences toward the edge of town, watching in all directions. If the 11 had contacted the rest of their creeps, they had to be searching for riders.

  When we reached the outskirts of town, Sherry said, “What now?”

  “Try for the sea, maybe, since they have so many horsemen available?” Arthur said doubtfully. Even in the moonlight he looked wan.

  “Do they?” Deirdre turned to me.

  When I shrugged, Wende popped out with, “Me Granny says, The more you know your enemies, the longer you’ll have friends and I agree.”

  She skipped ahead a little, bending to examine some night-blooming lilies, so she didn’t notice Sherry’s puzzled look. Or hear my slow sigh.

  Frederic muttered to Deirdre in English, “Did that make sense to you?”

  Deirdre said to Wende in a kind of annoyed voice, “I don’t agree. The more you know about your enemies, they more they’ll want to kill you for what you know. Aren’t we finding that out?”

  “Said the more you know them, not know about them,” Wende replied.

  “No difference.”

  “Maybe.” Wende sounded thoughtful. She tipped her head. “Maybe it’s not comin’ out in your lingo the right way.” She flashed a grin.

  Nobody could be mad at her. I said, “I wish we did know more about 11. Just enough to be able to avoid them. Anyway, we still have to figure out how to get you guys out of the country.” I groaned, hating that brain-itchy feeling of being unable to win against a pack of adults with tons of magic and military junk and all the rest.

  But we had to try.

  “Should we go back to Clair?” Sherry asked softly, in a private voice to me.

  “I think if she knew anything she’d find us.”

  “I hope she’s looking, too.”

  “She had to waste most of today with that Ujban mess,” I said, remembering Clair’s schedule before Wende and Deirdre and Frederic turned up.

  “Ujban?” Arthur asked.

  Well, we hadn’t exactly gone off to be private. The poor slob was so grundged from that icky Kessler spell, there was no way I’d make a loud comment about Noses. “It’s not Norsunder or anything,” I said fast. “Don’t worry. It’s more of a problem that some of their nobles decided to build summer homes in the border mountains, looking our way.”

  “Is that a bad thing?” Deirdre asked.

  We’d started walking, just to be moving.

  “No. Though I think it’s stupid to build a house for a romantic view. But then I think romance is stupid. Now that the north forest is beginning to grow again. Anyway, the trouble isn’t really that, it’s how much they pay the local workers, so everyone quits regular jobs to go there, and there’s also some nastiness mixed in with trade and so forth with Elchnudaeb. Fudalklaeb’s got bad relations with everybody. On account of his huge taxes. When he tried to fob it all off on his people, a lot of the best artisans and the like hopped over the border to Ujban, and us, and who’d blame them?”

  “Say,” Deirdre interrupted, pointing to the horizon off to one side. (Not that I blamed her for being bored at all that gabble about foreign kings and their problems.) “I thought those jagged silhouettes were weird mountains, but they are trees. How big are they?”

  “Really big,” I said. “Really, really big. I don’t know anybody who’s dared climb all the way to the top of one.”

  We blabbed on about tree climbing as we made our way closer and closer to the lake. We found a sheltered, grassy spot to sit, but before we knew it, we fell asleep.

  That is, all except Arthur, who had to deal with the horror of Norsunder magic... but it seemed Kessler, who had cast the spell over the knife used to put the magic in Arthur’s blood, was too busy to hassle him that particular night. So Arthur just endured an hour of cold dread and pain.

  o0o

  We woke up with daylight, and began walking.

  At least we were heading north, which was the right direction. (I tried not to think about how we were laboring just to catch up with the Junky again. At least we were farther west.)

  Other than some water, we had nothing to eat, so everybody was pretty cranky by noon. But we spotted a trade town on the edge of a mountain, where we could see several roads—winding all around the undulating countryside like unspoiled ribbon—coming together.

  We were nearly at the outskirts of the town when galloping hooves reached us. The sound was sudden, the way sound is when you’re marching up and down vales and hills. And it didn’t slow.

  “There’s nowhere to hide,” Sherry said, clutching her fists close to her chin.

  The area around us was rocky, the only greenery a lot of grass, old wildflowers, and a couple of bushes that wouldn’t hide a cat. On one side of the road, the ground sloped away down toward the stream that seemed to lead to the town, and on the other were the rocky cliffs.

  “What do we do?” Arthur asked tiredly.

  “Wait until the last second, and then dive for the bushes soon as the creep gets near. And when he tries to slow down, let’s roll down that hill. He can’t gallop, the slope is too steep.” I pointed. It was the best I could come up with—and nobody argued.

  We stood in a clump, facing backward. The rhythmic gallop got closer and closer, then the creep rounded the corner. I had just enough time to see that the 11 was young, probably that same stinker who’d been on the terrace of the White Palace, as his eyes sorted us.

  He fixed on Wende, reached down...

  “Now!”

  We dove in different directions. I hit a grassy spot, glad I’d avoided rocks—until Deirdre shrieked, “Someone coming from the other direction!”

  “Gotta be Kessler,” I moaned. “Down the slope!”

  By the time the 11 had halted his horse and wheeled to come back after us, we were halfway down the slope—most of us rolling crazily. Wow, that hurt, but we got down there fast.

  The two horsemen paused at the edge of the road. I cast a glance back, but couldn’t see past the hair in my face, and the sun directly over their shoulders.

  But all I needed to know was that they couldn’t force the animals down the slope.

  We splashed into the stream, and kept
going, sometimes swimming, until it became a fall just before the town.

  By then we’d spotted a trail carved by the locals, and scrambled down as fast as we could, not stopping, though we were all breathless, with stitches in our sides. Finally we reached the sort-of shelter of the town.

  The buildings here had much steeper roofs than usual, due to heavy snow fall in winter. It was colder than the lower lands—but we’d been running so hard we didn’t notice.

  The sky had been clouding up, and as we ducked down a narrow alleyway between a jumble of shops, actual snowflakes began to drift down, though they melted as soon as they touched the ground.

  We reached the single inn, and slipped inside; from somewhere the echo of horse hooves ringing on stone made us furtive and scared.

  An older man paused in the act of bringing a tureen of something aromatic and spicy to a table of old people. “Can I help you?” he asked, bushy white brows rising.

  “Could you please let us stay, though we haven’t money, and don’t tell anyone, because those creeps from Norsunder are after us, but Clair would pay—”

  He cut through my gabble. “Clair? The queen?”

  I nodded violently, as hooves clattered in the street, the sound clear despite the closed leaded glass windows.

  “You are the princess, I am guessing,” the man said.

  “Yes, oh hurry...”

  “Down below. The old smuggling room. Now a storage,” he said.

  “Oh thank you,” I said, then paused. “Listen. Don’t stare into their eyes, okay?”

  The old man did not question this, just shoved aside a barrel that was covering a false doorway, and down some rickety steps we went, directly below their bake-house or stove, because it was toasty warm.

  I clapped—and a glow globe lit, revealing stacks of boxes and barrels. We found a couple of rolled-up carpets and sat on them facing one another in two rows. Deirdre tentatively traced her finger over some Mearsiean writing on the side of a box. “Wow, I’m really here,” she whispered.

  Frederic knuckled his eyes. “I didn’t believe it. Wanted to, but didn’t.”

  Sherry said, “I hope the old fellow remembers some eats.”

  Arthur just crouched there, his filthy blond hair hanging in his eyes.

  “Arthur?”

  He looked up. “No titles, no protocol. No boneheaded questions about what you’re doing, and why, and is it proper for one in your place. In Bereth Ferian, I feel like protocol is a, a, a rope or a net tying me up.”

  I wasn’t about to slang a place like B.F.—world famous for its mages who did a lot of good in the world. “Clair liked it there,” I said. “But yeah, she said they’ve got a lot of rules.”

  “They also got more stringent about protecting us young ones, and look what happened to me anyway.” He made a face.

  “Clair said you got turned into a statue during that mess. That’s why she never got to meet you.”

  He looked away, and I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, so I gave Frederic and Deirdre a quick rundown on Clair and Puddlenose’s adventure in the north, not even trying to be fair about the villains. They grinned, and Arthur lay back, eyes closed.

  We blabbed on for a while about what we would have done to the villains. Nothing interesting, but everybody seemed to be trying to make Arthur laugh, and he even joined in. I think he knew we were trying, and so he tried to pretend he felt fine. But I knew that the 11 poison in his blood was getting him down.

  Twice, the old guy came down. First time was with food. Yay! Second time, he paused on the stair. “No one has revealed your presence, but the word is, there is someone with magical power commencing a search.”

  “We’re gone,” I said. “Thanks.”

  o0o

  I’d thought nothing could get worse than snow, mud, being hungry, and scared, but it did.

  We snuck out and headed for the mountains to get lost. By now I had no plan except to keep running.

  When we stopped in a barn that night, we fell into exhausted sleep among the fresh-cut hay, to waken when Deirdre gasped, and Wende yelled, “No!”

  We all jerked awake to discover that Arthur had a hold on Wende’s wrist. He moved like a robot—and I knew immediately what had happened.

  “Don’t let him get the thing,” I whispered. “Sit on him.”

  We attacked Arthur, and he fought back, hard, sending the hay flying. He wasn’t even trying to be nice. I got a painful whack of a bony wrist on my nose, and Frederic got a knee in the stomach, but we were too much for a worn out kid even with Kessler trying to take control of him (either Kessler or that horrible creep who’d tried to hypnotize Wende) and once he was down, Frederic sat on him.

  Then Arthur gave a honking sob. The rest of us flinched in worry and embarrassment. Arthur stuffed his fingers in his ears and muttered over and over, “I won’t, no, not listening, shut up!” Until midnight, when he fell into an exhausted sleep.

  The next day, they found us again.

  We ran, discovered we were being driven into a trap. When I yelled, “They’re hemming us in—and I fell for it!” and began pocalubing in earnest, Wende said, “Granny tells us, Action, not anger, will correct a wrong—”

  “Argh!” I bellowed. “Your Granny is....” Wende looked up, her round face hurt, and I remembered just in time that people have their own ways of keeping their courage up. Mine is pocalubes, hers was those quotes. “—too smart,” I finished lamely.

  And that was when Kessler closed the trap.

  The wild pops of air and sparkles of transfer magic surrounded us, and Kessler lunged forward and grabbed Wende.

  The other kids clumped together, terrified. “Burn him,” I screeched.

  Wende’s chin jutted as she pulled the dyr from her pocket and swung it toward Kessler’s hand.

  He let go, just for an instant, and in that instant, I summoned Hreealdar—who came.

  The blinding light this time was ours. I reached down, grabbed Deirdre, who had the smarts to grab the boys—and as Hreealdar flashed into lightning, sending Kessler staggering back, I gabbled the transfer spell.

  o0o

  We appeared on the cloud top.

  Dizzy, tired, bewildered, we staggered. Then lightning flashed, and I was vaguely aware of a woman’s voice, “Here he is!”

  A bunch of adults swooped around Arthur, lightning flashed again as the adults transferred out, sending displaced air fazooming around.

  I flopped down onto a white stone step.

  “Come inside, CJ,” Clair said. “The 11s might show up, though I doubt it. That much magic, their tracers are going to lead them into all the traps the mages have waiting for them. But in case.”

  I moaned and groaned and cursed, Sherry following me like a silent ghost.

  “Are you okay?” Clair asked Sherry.

  Sherry’s eyes puddled. “It wasn’t an adventure, it was a mess.”

  “Dealing with Kessler is always a mess,” I said. “Yecch.”

  Clair led the way to the kitchen. “You kept them on the run until the mages came, and could set up that protected square so they could get Arthur safely away. I’d call that really, really good work. That dyr thing is dangerous. There’s no way I can learn enough magic to deal with it.”

  I wrinkled my nose. “It didn’t do anything to us.”

  “No. It gets used. I guess it’s the potential of the thing, not the thing itself I don’t understand, and only had about three heartbeats to explain because they were so busy with their magic.”

  I sighed, and sank my teeth into chocolate pie. “And may they all keep going,” I said. “Norsunder and grownups both. May they keep going.”

  o0o

  And so…

  o0o

  Wende got sent to Everon. Her adventures are written down by other people.

  Turned out the mages didn’t actually transfer Arthur—even they couldn’t do much about that terrible spell. But Hreealdar took them somewhere in the northland
s, where Norsunder has a lot more difficulty tracking people.

  But that left them with a distance to go. Though there were now guardians around the kids, Deirdre and Arthur and Frederic really enjoyed traveling together. Though we were just coming into winter, in the north, it was springtime. Despite the ring of grim mages guarding them the kids got along really well, which made the trip almost fun.

  Once they got to Bereth Ferian, a whole lot of magic and stuff had to happen to remove that lethal spell from Arthur. Then Evend, the leader, said that the Earth kids had to go back, as Kessler was after them now. Everybody knew what he was like, and that he’d go after them if he could find them, in order to get at Arthur or Wende or both. Evend insisted on sending them back, which really hurt Frederic the most. Deirdre, too, but she secretly wanted to see her mom and sister again. Frederic was so disappointed, and Arthur (who’d never been permitted to make friends with kids, he had such an important position) was so gloomy at the prospect of going back to his old life, that Evend spend a tremendous amount of time making a sort of talking picture thing, so that Arthur and the Earth kids could chat every day at a certain time... if the Gate Magic permitted.

  And so they were transferred back through the Gate.

  On Earth, when kids vanish, there’s a big stink. I could have told them that, but nobody asked me! The kids arrived, and Deirdre’s mother was glad. Frederic’s mom didn’t even notice when Frederic got into his room again. She was too busy with her TV.

  But the next day, when the kids tried to go back to school, the principal called the police, everybody starting yelling and screaming and demanding Where have you been! and when they called Frederick’s mother, she yowled about lawyers and lawsuits. Then she came to the school and staged a huge faint, once she was reunited with her dear lost boy, who she hadn’t even known was missing.

  Frederic didn’t tell her that he’d been home since the day before.

  Everybody wanted to know what had happened, and the kids didn’t know what to say. But Elian Weiss did. Sobbing even louder than Frederic’s mom (who was thrilled to be surrounded by newspaper reporters) she said, “That terrible man kidnapped them!”

 
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