Authors: Doranna Durgin
Tags: #Science Fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to any real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1994 by Doranna Durgin
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Book
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by David Miller
First printing, August 1994
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America
Dedicated to every single person who helped me along the way,
For Leslie and Tusquin, who showed me how it could be,
And especially to Holly, Sue, and Will, who were there at the start
The odor of singed herbs filled the stone stairway, and Carey smiled to himself. He knew that once again Arlen had immersed himself so deeply in his studies that he eluded the outside world. He reached the wizard's chamber and hooked his hand on the heavy door frame to swing casually into the well-lit room.
Arlen did not notice. His writing table was cleared down to seldom seen wood, and he sat before it, staring intently at the one object gracing its surface. His hair, still full and shaggy despite some grey, fell forward to hide his features: dark, kind eyes and a long nose over a mustache which almost hid his slight overbite.
Carey tapped the thick metal of his courier ring against the stone of the wall, introducing sound into the quiet room. Arlen's head jerked up, then around; when he discovered Carey, his one cocked eyebrow formed an unspoken question.
"You called, remember?" Carey tapped the ring again, which still tingled in summons. With easy familiarity, he moved into the room and pulled up the stool that sat empty before Arlen's spell table. "You've been up here too long. I'll bet you haven't been out since you first sent me out to Sherra's." He reached for the sputtering simmering pot and removed the burning herbs from the frame that held it over its low mage-flame. "Losing track of your fragrance herbs . . . not a good sign, Arlen."
Arlen leaned back in his chair and raised an offended eyebrow. "I called, all right, but it wasn't to subject myself to a lecture."
"You need one," Carey replied, unperturbed. "If you hadn't kept me so busy running between wizards lately, I'd have made sure you remembered to take care of yourself."
"That's the problem exactly," Arlen said. "That's why I called. I've got another run for you—but this time we need to talk."
Carey abandoned the stool and wandered to one of the four unshuttered windows of the hold's uppermost room. Built along a hillside, the dwelling abandoned any pretense at symmetrical architecture and instead insinuated itself into the nooks and crannies of the steep rocky ground. The result was this five-walled room, of which no wall equalled the length of another. A good place for the creative pursuits of a wizard, Carey had decided long ago. He hung over the windowsill to get an unfettered look at the hilly fields and pastures of the area, while the brisk spring air made a pleasant counterpoint to the sunshine on his face. "So talk."
"Carey," Arlen said firmly, "I recognize the habits of your profession don't encourage inactivity. But do you think you could be still for just a few moments, and apply your entire concentration to what I have to say?"
Surprised but unstung by the wizard's admonition, Carey returned to the stool and shook his hair—dark blond instead of grey, but just as shaggy as Arlen's—out of his eyes. "All right," he said. "I'm listening." And then, seeing the smudges of fatigue around Arlen's eyes, and fully recognizing their somber expression, he was indeed truly alert to what his friend and employer had to say.
"I've found something new, Carey, something none of us have suspected even existed."
None of us
—wizards, he meant. Carey nodded. "That explains why you've been sending everything through me instead of popping it around." Magical missives could be intercepted, but a lone rider was most difficult to detect—except through the mundane means of trackers and guesswork. "How dangerous is it?"
Arlen nodded, absently smoothing a frayed spot on his shirt. "Dangerous all the way around—but wondrous, as well. There are other worlds, Carey. Other dimensions. Other peoples . . . people who, I might add, don't seem to have any notion we exist."
"Then what's the danger?" Carey frowned.
"At this point, the danger is to them."
Carey shook his head once to show he wasn't following, and Arlen's expression grew intense.
"You know we wizards have checkspells in place, to prevent the unauthorized use of dangerous magics. What you may not realize is the time it takes to create one of those spells—the most inherently dangerous moment in the life of any hazardous new spell is the time between which it is discovered and the time the checkspell is in place. There's more than one person in this land who would use this particular knowledge for their own gain—and those other worlds can't know how to deal with a magic they may not possess."
Carey gave a skeptical snort. "I doubt they're as helpless as all that. Besides, what's to gain?"
"Entire worlds," Arlen said with certainty. "As far as I've been able to determine, once a traveler is spelled to one of these worlds, there remains only the thread of a connection between the two places. That gives the person in question all the magic they care to draw on—even in the worlds without magic—with none of the inconveniences of the Council's restraint." Arlen leaned forward, his dark eyes sparking with intensity. "Think past the everyday magics of night glows and cleansing spells, Carey. Think about those things that are used only when one of us without scruples manages to circumvent a checkspell, and how quickly they gain power. The bloody times in Camolen's history."
The skepticism faded; Carey stared at the wizard with widened eyes. "Damn."
Arlen leaned back, taking a deep breath that he released slowly through his long, straight nose. "There's more. These others have developed devices that accomplish some of the same things we can do with magic, including weapons that will work as well in our world as theirs. We've got to get this under control before one of the less conscientious among us figures out what we've got and how to use it. I hope your horses are well rested, Carey, because you're going to be busy."
Carey shrugged sturdy shoulders set atop a wiry frame. "That's what I'm here for."
"True enough." Arlen reached behind to scoop the lone object from the top of his writing desk, and held it out to Carey, who rose only long enough to take it. He settled back on the stool and studied the small blue crystal for a moment before glancing back up at Arlen.
"It's protection," Arlen said.
"Spellstone?" Carey asked. "Protection from what?" He reached into the neck of his tunic and brought out a heavy silver chain, upon which hung several colorful spellstones, and compared the new one to its fellows.
"We've been careful, but—" Arlen shook his head, his lips thinning in annoyance. "Word is out, I'm afraid. At the very least, Calandre knows of the new spell—Calandre, and whoever else she's told. She's been too good for too long. You're bound to be a target, Carey."
Carey set the small crystal carefully on the table, thinking about Arlen's former student. A woman his own age, Calandre had arrived with an enormous amount of talent and not a whit of patience. Her barely scrupulous magical shortcuts had kept her off the Wizard's Council year after year, and as her frustration grew, so did her rationalized, barely sanctioned methods. For several years she had been in her own hold—obtained from an aging wizard under questionable circumstances—and had not bothered to interact with the Council, save for response to the occasional summons. To all appearances, she was operating within the Council guidelines, but . . . "What about the shieldstone?" he asked.
"Still holds," Arlen assured him. "As long as you wear the stone, the only magic that affects you will be the spells you release yourself. But you know as well as I that there are other ways."
Unclasping the silver chain, Carey strung the new spellstone and replaced the collection around his neck. "No one's going to outrun me," he said confidently.
"Let's pretend that they do," Arlen said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "That's what this crystal is for. I'm not sure just what effect it'll have—"
Carey looked at him in surprise. "You want me to fool around with an untested spell? I'll rely on my horses, I think."
"Did you hear nothing of what I have said?" Arlen said, anger flashing just bright enough to remind Carey who and what his employer was. "You'll be carrying information too crucial to lose! Everything I know of this new spell is in my head, Carey—except for the manuscript you'll be taking to Sherra. In that is everything I know about the new dimensions, and all my explorations into a checkspell. If anyone—and I mean anyone, from the lowest road pirate to the Precinct Guard—tries to take it from you, you invoke that crystal. It will take you to the only place you can't be reached."
Years of working with the wizard as friend and courier alerted Carey to the words that were not said. "Where?" he asked warily, then didn't give Arlen a chance to answer. "To one of those other worlds. You're sending me to a place that might not even know magic—how the hell am I supposed to get back?"
"It's a twofold spell," Arlen said steadily. "It's tied to this world; it'll bring you back when you invoke it again, and reverse any of the results."
"What about the recall? Why don't I just use that in the first place?"
"No! If you're too close to them, and you're running from someone with magic, they'll tap in and follow you right back here." Arlen sighed at Carey's frustration. "Normally that's not a problem—not with the shielded receiving room in the stable. But we can't take a chance. There we'd be—the manuscript and me, in the same hold with whoever's threatening us both. They'd get it all, and that would leave Sherra with no chance of formulating a checkspell in time to stop the trouble that would inevitably follow."
Carey frowned as the importance of this run—and its dangers—sank in past his protests. "All right, Arlen," he said slowly. "I understand." In the silence that followed, he put a hand to his chest, and felt the small lump of crystals. The run to Sherra's was long, a twisting route through thick woods and a deep river gully. Plenty of places for an ambush.
"I see that you do," Arlen said in relief. "I'm sorry, Carey. I wouldn't choose to put you in this danger, but I need someone I can trust absolutely."
Carey raised his head, a sharp motion that was the preamble of defense for his couriers.
Arlen forestalled him with a raised hand. "You're the only one I
who will invoke that new crystal," he specified.
Even though it may take you into even worse danger
, unspoken words they both knew.
"I'll take Lady," Carey said, a non sequitur that spoke of his capitulation, and a claim to Arlen's trust.
"Not the Dun?" Arlen, too, retreated to unspoken words.
Carey shook his head. "The Dun's fast—but her daughter can pivot so quick it's a wonder she doesn't turn us both inside out."
"Get her ready, then," Arlen said. "I'll be down to see you off."
Lady dropped her weight to her haunches, sliding in the loose dirt of the steep slope where her Carey had guided her. Friction skinned the hide off her hocks as Carey leaned back in the saddle, his hands a lifeline to her mouth in a balance of freedom and support—all the encouragement he could give her. But Lady needed no more encouragement, for Carey was scared. She felt it in the tension of his legs, heard it in his voice. She knew it from the desperate ploy that had sent them down the dangerous slope in the first place.
To her left flashed a sudden falling tangle of arms and legs, hooves and soft yielding flesh, driving her a step closer to equine panic; she lurched right to escape from the new threat.