Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  Back into the living room. Could Mom be right? Deirdre wanted desperately for her Mom to be right. So much, so hard, that it made her dizzy for a moment, much dizzier than the sniff of that stuff in the stone jar. It felt as if her mind had opened a window she’d never seen before and there were all the stars in the universe.

  No noise except for a commercial yammering “Makes your automatic feel like it’s ten feet tall!” Her heart thumped, and her fingers felt sweaty.

  She faced the bedroom door, fingering the key again.

  Her hesitation was mostly fear now, of finding something terrible behind there.

  All she needed to do was sneak a quick peek. If there was a monster inside, she could always grab the button thingie, couldn’t she? Only what would she tell Mr. Blick?

  I know. I’ll open the door, peek, slam it again, and lock it.

  She stepped close to the door. She did hear noise—another television. The same channel, sounded like.

  She slid the key slowly into the lock, and just as slowly turned it. The sounds of the TVs yammering made her feel more confident. The lock noises weren’t so loud.

  Click. She felt the old mechanism spring free, and she lifted her hand, leaving the key in the lock. Turned the doorknob.

  Leaned, peeked inside.

  And looked straight into the eyes of a kid who was tied up in a chair, with a gag in his mouth.

  For a long moment neither of them moved. Then the kid struggled desperately, his face turning crimson, and Deirdre backed up a step. Her first impulse was to slam the door again, and if the rest of the apartment had been normal, she would have. If there had been wet towels in the bathroom, and shaving cream and razors and toothbrushes, and canned food in the kitchen, and grownup junk on the coffee table, then the possibilities would have been limited to all the rules she understood.

  But now the possibilities were limitless—including the chance that her mother was right.

  She looked again. Blue eyes looked back at her. Not crazy eyes, or angry eyes, but desperate ones—with tears in them. That boy has tears in his eyes. As she watched a tear slid down into the gag tied so tightly round his mouth.

  She couldn’t stand looking at that! Reasoning that the kid was still tied in the chair, in case he was dangerous, she crossed behind him and worked at the tight knot in the gag. She couldn’t get it loose, and pulling seemed to hurt the kid, who had a sweaty neck above a shirt that didn’t look quite like any shirt she’d seen on any boy at school. It was cotton, and she could see that the edging along the neck was hand stitched. His hair was cut a little different, too—longer, and not shaved above the hairline, like most boys’, but cut square across the back, kind of like pictures of The Beatles, except their hair was cut round, like a bowl. His was parted in the middle on top, and hung down in lank, sweaty strands on either side of his forehead.

  Meanwhile, the stupid knot wouldn’t untie!

  She bit her lip, wondering what to do, and then realized she didn’t have to untie the knot, she only had to pull the gag down in front.

  Though that wasn’t easy, either. The gag was tight across his mouth between his teeth. She knelt down in front of the kid, who seemed to realize what she was doing; he lifted his chin, and she gingerly gripped a corner of what seemed to be a handkerchief (but wet with slobber, Eeeuw!) and pulled hard.

  It dragged at his lip and caught on the edges of his lower teeth. Now she stood up, worked her fingers in at either side, and slid it cautiously down, the kid keeping absolutely still so she could do it. That didn’t seem crazy.

  At last it gave, and sank round his neck like a cowboy kerchief, leaving his mouth all scraped and raw-looking. Deirdre stared in dismay, hating Mr. Blick.

  “Thank you,” the kid said. “Oh, thank you. Even though you’ll have to put it back.” He had an accent, but not the same accent as Mr. Blick’s.

  “Who are you?” Deirdre asked, kneeling down again.

  “Irtur Vithyavadnais,” was the response.

  “Yih-”

  “Irtur.”

  “Yihr-r-r...” She shook her head. “Is that, like, Russian? Or French?”

  He winced, then said carefully, enunciating each word. “Irtur is my name. The language I speak at home is called Sartoran.” He nodded at the old black-and-white TV sitting on the crummy dresser against the other wall. “I now speak the correct language, yes? I hear it all the time on that talking box.”

  Deirdre’s mouth opened, then she laughed. “You are from another world! Aren’t you!”

  The kid seemed relieved. “Yes. Sartorias-deles. I am Irtur Vithyavadnais den Evend, of Bereth Ferian.”

  “Fair-yan,” Deirdre repeated. “Oh! This is so weird. My mom—” She shook her head. “First things first. Why are you all tied up like this? Is Mr. Blick your dad?”

  Revulsion tightened the boy’s face. “He is not. His name is Kessler Sonscarna.”

  “Kessler? Isn’t that a name from this world?”

  “I do not know that, but it is a very common first name in Chwahirsland, I am told. He has taken me by force from my home. We were shifted through a world-gate so that my guardian, Evend, will not be able to trace us.”

  “So he’s a bad guy, then? A villain?”

  “I know little about him, except his name, and that he was once heir to Chwahirsland. Now he has given himself to Norsunder.”

  “Norsunder,” Deirdre repeated, feeling sick inside. “So that’s real, too.”

  Pain squeezed the boy’s eyes closed for a moment. “Oh, it’s very real. I was taken there first.” He pressed his lips together, then shook his head. “They offered me many rewards if I would betray Evend, and then they threatened me. And finally put me under the charge of this man, who didn’t even speak to me before he cut me with a knife.” He half-lifted one arm.

  Deirdre gasped. “Mr. Blick—or whatever-his-name-is cut you?”

  “Yes. No word, no threat, even. Just did it, bound it up, did the magic to bring me here, brought me food, and when I ate it and fell into a nasty sort of sleep, I woke up like this.” He sighed. “At least the cut on my arm healed very fast while I slept.”

  “It makes no sense!”

  “Well, I fear they are now threatening Evend on my behalf.”

  “My mom told me about Norsunder, from her time in Mearsies Heili. I know how terrible they are. Heard of Mearsies Heili?”

  “Yes,” the boy said, his expression earnest. “It is a small kingdom on the continent of Toar. I do know my map. So Norsunder interferes in this world as well?”

  “No. At least, not that I ever heard. But Mom learned about them there, when she got pulled through the Gate.”

  He shook his head, then winced. “Today I managed to spit most of the sleepweed down my shirt, but I didn’t get any food. Oh, my head hurts.”

  Now that she was close, Deirdre could see that the gag alone hadn’t made his face red; there were also bruises on both sides of his face. Hatred, followed by fear, squeezed her heart into beating faster.

  “I must get away,” the boy said. “I must get back home, lest Norsunder force Evend into a terrible decision in order to attempt to save my life.”

  Deirdre said, “How? Where? Yih...Yeer—” She thought about the boy’s name, and the soft ‘t’ sound that wasn’t quite a ‘t’ but not a ‘d’ but wasn’t a ‘th’ either, and those tough ‘r’ sounds, and she said, “Is it okay if I translate your name into something, like—like Arthur? I don’t want to say it wrong, and end up saying some other word instead. With my luck, meaning something nasty.”

  The boy smiled briefly, despite cracked lips. “Ar-thur. Arthur. I can hear that, yes.” His ‘r’ was still like a French ‘r’, otherwise he had no trouble saying it.

  “Do you know magic?” Deirdre asked.

  “Yes. But I dare not use it except to transfer, not with the wards against me. I must locate the gate. Not the one here. That I suspect is warded. But there are other—other adits? Accesses. Yes! This
word is right? I remember Evend showing me once.” He closed his eyes. “If I could see a semblance of your world, I might remember them.”

  “So you can’t zap back by magic, then, right? You have to go somewhere first?”

  “That is correct.”

  “Okay, Arthur. Tell you what. I’m scared he’s going to come back, so maybe we better put that disgusting gag back in, and I’ll lock the door. Let me talk to my mom, and we can figure out a plan of some sort.”

  Arthur looked unhappy, but resigned. His expression was so resigned and unhappy that the last of her doubts—not very large—about his sanity vanished.

  “Just—please. Bring me water first. Plain water, with nothing in it.”

  She scurried to the kitchen, got the water, brought it back and held it for him. He slurped it down so fast and so gratefully that pity wrung her. Then he leaned his head back, breathing fast, while she took the cup back to the kitchen, careful to rinse it and put it exactly where it had been.

  Then back to the bedroom. Arthur obliged her by holding still while she worked the disgusting gag back into his mouth, and then she left and locked the door, putting the key into her pocket.

  She sat down and got out her homework, despite shaking fingers. Her heartbeat was still thumping hard when the front door rattled without any warning, and there was Mr. Blick again—or what was his real name? Kessler something.

  He said, “No problem?”

  “No problem at all,” Deirdre replied, and was glad to look down at her books and homework papers as she swept them all together.

  The man gave her the usual handful of money, and she went out, hoping he couldn’t hear her heartbeat.

  The door shut behind her.

  She forced herself to walk, just like normal, back to her own apartment.

  o0o

  “... and so that’s it,” she said, leaning out to stare at the clock, then turning to Frederic. “I talked it over with my mother. She’d hoped Mr. Blick would be a mage who would help us, but everything is changed. He’s an enemy, and instead we have to rescue Arthur, and get him back to his own world.”

  Frederic swallowed. “So where do I come in?”

  Deirdre said, “Will you—would you—hide him, if we get him out? Because you know the first person Mr. Blick will blame is me. We figured if I do everything exactly like usual, and pretend I know nothing, then he won’t blame me for long—he’ll think some other mage rescued him. We’ll figure out how to get him away, all you’d have to do is hide him at your place for a day while he gets his strength back. Would you?”

  Frederic felt his neck tighten for a shake, his tongue form the word ‘No’, but he thought of his mother living in her part of the house, and he alone day after day, year after year in his.

  He thought about the pakkies, and a dreary life ahead of high school bullies and boring classes, being made fun of for being fat, no friends, nothing but his books, and he wondered how any danger from a weirdo like this Mr. Blick could possibly be worse than the future.

  Seven: Friends Unite

  Arthur lay gratefully on the bed, concentrating on his breathing. He had never been so sick in his life, and he knew what it was from: forcing himself to vomit up his food and doing the Waste Spell, just so he wouldn’t sleep all day from the sleepweed Kessler put in the food. Kessler stood over him and watched him eat everything, so there was no hope for it: eat and be insensate all the rest of the day and night, or get rid of it, and be hungry and achy, but awake.

  He had to stay awake.

  The door slammed open. Arthur shut his eyes.

  Arthur heard Kessler’s quick step on the rug (no, it’s called a carpet, he thought), and tried to keep himself limp. Fingers gripped his hair and Kessler yanked his head up. Arthur’s temples panged so hard from the very real headache that his face spasmed, but he let his mouth drop open. The groan was real.

  Kessler let Arthur’s head fall again, and then, oh! out he walked, without forcing Arthur back into that wooden chair to be tied up. Arthur knew it was not mercy but practicality. Kessler had been told to keep Arthur alive. Feverish and weak might lead to death, especially on a world that did not seem to have healers.

  Arthur lay just where he had fallen, one arm hanging down over the side of the bed. He was comfortable for once, except for his gnawing insides and the terrible headache from not eating for days.

  But it was so much better to lie down! And so he must think. He must. Would Deirdre Weiss return? If Kessler got the least suspicious, he’d get rid of her, if not by a knife across the neck, then by magic—depending on who had given him the orders to come to this world, and why.

  That was what Arthur couldn’t figure out: why here, and why near someone who had been to Sartorias-deles before, out of a kingdom (no, a republic!) that had, apparently, millions of people, and was big enough to require weeks of riding to cross?

  It could be an elaborate trap. It was entirely possible.

  It was also possible that Kessler did not know that the girl he’d hired to sit in that outer room listening for him to try to escape was the daughter of someone who had once visited Sartorias-deles. But someone had to know—either that or Norsunder as well as the light mages had hidey-holes here, so near a Gate. And it was one of those random chances that brought Deirdre here.

  He could not answer those questions on his own. What he had to do was be careful, escape, and eventually find someone who could answer them for him.

  Arthur heard the water running in the outer room. It had taken some time before he’d identified that rushing sound in the walls. How very strange this world was, with no magic, yet with devices that appeared to run by magic, like the lights that sprang instantly into existence at the touch of controls upon a wall. That talking box thing, from which Arthur had learned a jumble of very weird things about this world. The water that came to the room at the turning of metal controls.

  And yet no cleaning frames! Arthur’s scalp crawled. His clothing itched, and he knew he smelled horrible. How did Kessler manage? Though Arthur scarcely knew the man, he’d already learned that he was fastidious. Did he expend the enormous and dangerous amount of magic necessary in a world-transfer every day, just to step through a cleaning frame? Or—

  Augh. Speculation was so pointless.

  A rapping at the door caught his restless mind. Deirdre’s knock!

  Brief voices came through the door: Kessler’s low, soft voice, and Deirdre’s high kid voice. Then the sound of the farthest door shutting.

  Arthur waited, listening to the occasional growling sounds of what he’d learned by watching the talking box were called cars, and to his own heartbeat.

  After a time came the welcome sound of the key in the lock, and the door opened. “Arthur?”

  He turned over and sat up, ignoring the pang in his head.

  Deirdre wrinkled her nose. “Phew, it’s stinky in here. Kessler, no doubt.”

  “No, actually, he is never in here, except to watch over my eating. The smell is from me.” Arthur’s face heated up.

  “Well, why don’t you take a quick shower, then?” Deirdre said, pointing outward. “Here. You said yesterday you were hungry. Has he fed you at last? I brought a couple of sandwiches.”

  “He gives me food, but I must get rid of it again, or I would sleep,” Arthur said. His mouth watered; in the still air he could smell the fresh bread, and the cheese within it.

  “Go ahead,” Deirdre said. “It’s a chicken sandwich. Mom told me that people on your world don’t eat mammal meat, and we don’t either, actually. So it’s perfectly safe.”

  Arthur was already halfway through the first sandwich, and then he forced himself to slow, and to take tiny bites, lest he inadvertently lose this food, too.

  But already he felt much better. His head seemed to clear of both fog and pain, and after he drank down a glass of water, he let his breath out in a long sigh. “If only I could be clean,” he murmured.

  Deirdre lifted her hand t
oward the bathroom, then let her hand drop. “Oh. Of course. Even if I showed you how the shower works, he’d know you were in there.”

  Arthur nodded unhappily. “Nothing must be different.”

  “Well, until tomorrow, anyway. I found a friend who’s going to hide you until we can figure out how to get you to the Gate.”

  Arthur’s heart hammered. “But the danger—” He shook his head. “Thank you.”

  “Don’t thank me,” Deirdre said, just as embarrassed. “My mom—and Frederic, yes. I’ve got the easy part, I just have to act stupid and lie to Mr. Blick. And what’s more, I’ll enjoy that, because he’s so creepy. So, get your sleep, and I’ll bring more sandwiches tomorrow, so you’ll get a little more strength.”

  Arthur nodded, relieved, unhappy, but mostly tired.

  Deirdre left him and he returned to the bed, being careful to lie down the way Kessler had left him. He slid into the first good sleep he’d had in days, and did not hear when Kessler let himself into the apartment.

  Not that he ever made much noise. “There was no trouble?” Kessler said to Deirdre, his blue eyes very direct and unblinking.

  Deirdre shook her head. “No trouble. I just did my homework.” She pointed to her books and then piled them together.

  Again Kessler thrust a wad of money at her without even looking at it, and she slipped it into her pocket and left. As always, the door nearly shut on her heels.

  Good, she thought firmly. It would be horrible if that fake Mr. Blick suddenly got all friendly and asked questions about Deirdre’s family and school and so forth. She scurried back to her apartment, and found her mother already in her waitress uniform.

  “Here’s the money,” Deirdre said, dropping it into her mother’s hand.

  “I can’t believe it! Fifty-six dollars! I almost wish this job would continue—I don’t make that in a week,” Elian Weiss said, laughing.

  Deirdre grimaced, and her mother said apologetically, “I was just kidding, dear. I’m sorry. Now, did you settle with the boy what to do?”

  Deirdre shook her head. “He was too groggy. But the sandwiches helped. I promised him more tomorrow. Should I open a window, as if he got out the back? No, because that man would ask why I didn’t hear sounds.”

 
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