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p r o l o g u e
"So, they have managed to kill Aranak."
The wizard looked up from her scrying pool and glanced at her familiar.
He was, as usual, perched on his little padded tower and apparently asleep. "They're more dangerous than
I thought." Winding a strand of hair around her finger thoughtfully, she added, "It might help if you actually woke up and did some work for a change."
The red panda opened one eye and regarded her for a moment. "I am awake," he answered, with a yawn.
He rearranged his long, fluffy tail and closed his eye again. "I just haven't been paying attention."
The wizard snorted. Blink and she had a stormy relationship at best. She, the Wizard Shanara, was a whirlwind of activity. Blink spent ninety-five percent of his time sleeping or trying to sleep. "Well, pay attention," she snapped. "Those three children have killed Aranak, and they may be after me next. In which case, you'd starve."
With a sigh, Blink opened both eyes. Heaving himself reluctantly into a seated position, he started to groom himself. "Very well," he answered, as if she'd just condemned an innocent man to death. "Tell me about it."
Shanara counted to ten to keep her temper. If she didn't need Blink's help, she had plenty of ideas on what to do with him. Most of them meant he wouldn't live very long. "There are three youngsters," she said.
"There's one named Score. He's some kind of street urchin from Earth. There's one called Renald, from a world called Ordin. She disguised herself as a boy, which fooled some people, but not me. And the last one's
Pixel, from Calomir. The three of them were taken by
Bestials to Treen. There they were taught magic by
Aranak. In a showdown, they managed to defeat and kill him before coming through the Portal that leads them here. They're now on Rawn. I've been observing them in my scrying pool for the past hour while you slept. They have the pages that they discovered, and they may even know that I have one more. At any rate,
it looks like they're going to be on their way here."
"Oh, dear," Blink yawned. "That sounds too much like work to me."
"Yes," she agreed. "That's just what it is. We have to slow them down and give me a chance to come up with a plan to defeat them."
"Where are they?" asked Blink.
"In the Jagged Mountains," Shanara answered, studying their images in her pool.
"Well, then, you probably don't have to bother worrying about them," the panda answered. "Considering what's in there with them."
"They're more powerful than they look," the wizard countered. "I'd be a fool to rely on the dangers of those mountains alone to stop them. No, I'm going to have to take an active hand in this one."
"Ouch," grumbled Blink. "And I know that means work."
"Yes," Shanara agreed. "But it will eliminate a potential threat. If the mountains don't get those kids,
then we shall." With a faint smile, she returned to studying her pool. Blink sighed again and wondered about his chances of catching forty more winks before he actually had to-shudder!-work . . .
Score stared all around, alternately fascinated and appalled. He, Renald-
no, Helaine!, he had to get used to her being female-and Pixel had emerged from the Portal ready, or so they had thought, for anything. Mostly, they had expected to be either attacked or captured. Instead, there was nobody waiting for them at all.
And they had emerged on the edge of a precipice.
All around them were mountains shaped like jagged teeth. They were obviously high up, with a very chill wind whipping about them, as if it were trying to push them over the edge. Score swallowed hard. He was a city boy, born and raised in New York. He wasn't used to wilderness, and he certainly wasn't used to mountains.
And he was pretty sure he hated being stuck on the side of one.
Behind them was a blink of light, but it was just the
Portal closing down, its job done.
"Well," Score said heavily. "That's it. We're stuck here now."
"I don't like it," Pixel admitted, stepping back slightly from the edge of the drop. "It looks dangerous. What do you think, Renald?"
"It is dangerous," Helaine said, a little of her old temper showing through. She seemed to have grown to like
Score and Pixel a little, but she was still impatient with them from time to time. Score supposed it came from being brought up as a spoiled daughter of a wealthy lord and also as a warrior. She was the only one of the three who could fight properly, and this had a tendency to make her arrogant and short-tempered. She was, however,
trying to control it. "And call me Helaine, please.
I prefer my real name, now that you know who I am."
"Well, I prefer my street name," Score commented,
shivering. "It's cold, and I'm not exactly dressed for mountaineering."
"None of us is," Pixel agreed, his teeth starting to chatter. "We'd better get out of this wind and make plans."
Score glanced around, trying not to get sick when he saw how precarious their perch was. Above them,
low clouds clung to the peak of the mountain, obscuring the view. He gestured down the narrow path they were standing on. "There's a cave down there," he said. "Let's get inside it. Then we can whip up a fire to get warm."
"Good idea," Helaine conceded. She moved past him to lead the way down. Score was about to object,
but decided not to. It wasn't worth fighting over. And if anyone fell, it would be her and not him. Cautiously,
they all followed the narrow path down the side of the mountain. Finally, they all stumbled into the small cave he'd seen.
It was about ten feet deep and, after a narrow entrance where they had to stoop, it was about eight feet tall. It was also, thankfully, empty of other life.
Once inside, the bitter chill of the wind was gone. It was still very cold, though.
Score concentrated on a loose rock on the floor. He visualized a flame in his mind, one that would warm them up, and heat the rock through. Then he focused this image on the rock. "Shriker Kula prior," he murmured,
using the incantation to create fire.
A sheet of flame leaped up, almost singeing Helaine.
With a curse, she stumbled back. "That wasn't funny!"
"I wasn't trying anything," Score protested, amazed.
The flame died down a little, but burned brightly and warmly in the small cave. "I was just trying to start a small fire. Not a volcano."
"It's because we've crossed from the Outer Worlds to the Middle Circuit," Pixel said quickly. "Remember what Aranak told us? That the closer we get to the center of the Diadem, the stronger the magic grows?
Obviously, a spell that would cause a small fire on
Treen can cause a larger one here."
Helaine studied the flames thoughtfully. "And probably a forest fire if we get any closer to the center of the web of worlds," she suggested. "We're going to have to be very careful about using our powers here,
until we can be sure we know what effect they'll have."
"If we can tell what effect they'll have," Score pointed out. "Don't forget, something is messing up the source of magic and sending spells all wrong."
"I'm not forgetting," Helaine answered. "But since it's unpredictable, we just have to deal with it as it happens." She warmed her hands at the fire. "Well,
I'm feeling better now. It might be an idea to take stock of what we've got, and see how much sense we can make of it. Let's pool our resources."
Score glared at her. "Will you stop always taking command?" he complained. "I think we should vote for a leader, not just allow you to take over the role."
Helaine snorted. "And we'd all vote for ourselves,"
she pointed out. "That's a dumb suggestion. Look, I'm just the best person for the job. I'm used to giving orders and making plans."
"So?" Score snapped back. "Just because you were a royal pain in the butt on your world doesn't mean a thing here. I'm really bad at taking orders, especially from a girl."
She moved her hand to the hilt of her weapon. "A
girl with a sword," she said softly.
"Hold it, guys!" protested Pixel, moving between them. "Arguing like this isn't going to get us anywhere.
We've got to learn to work together, remember? That's what Oracle told us."
Score took a deep breath. "You're right," he agreed reluctantly. "We won't solve anything behaving like this." Then he scowled again. "But I still say we have no reason to trust Oracle. He claims to be helping us, but he's sure managed to get us into a lot of trouble."
The mysterious, flickering character had betrayed
Score to a street gang on Earth, and the other two on their worlds also. He claimed to be on their side, but spent all his time spouting silly rhymes and avoiding direct answers to any of their questions.
Pixel nodded. "I'm not sure I trust him, either," he admitted. "But he may be able to help us here. Surely,
it can't hurt to ask him?"
"I don't know," Helaine said. "He gives me a headache." Then she shrugged. "But we do need to know where we are, and what we should do here. And if there's anything to watch out for. I guess summoning him and asking him can't hurt that much."
"Right." Score decided it was time for him to take command, before Helaine could do it again. "We know we can call him up by focusing on his name and image.
And then reciting his name backward for the calling spell. Together, then." He closed his eyes and concentrated.
Oracle . . . in his pure black costume . .
I hear your call and I obey
To see what you require today.
Score opened his eyes, and there was Oracle, standing opposite them, a wide grin on his handsome face,
and spouting his silly verses again. He claimed he had no option but to speak like that. Score wondered if he was telling the truth, or if he was doing it just to irritate them. "I'll tell you what we require," Score growled. "Information. Where are we? What's going on? And how do we get down off this stupid mountain?"
Oracle glanced around, and then stooped to peer out of the cave. His lips quirked again with a smile.
A raging wind, a fearful blast
Could tear you down from here quite fast.
He gestured with his hand, indicating someone dropping over the edge like a rock.
This world is known as Rawn, young friends,
Delightful, once the mountain ends.
But humans are not welcomed here
And danger to you soon will steer.
"Well, like I needed to hear that," complained Score.
"Danger. Why am I not surprised?"
"What kind of danger?" asked Helaine, rather more practically.
At mountain's base the goblin race
Assert their rule upon this place.
"Goblins?" echoed Pixel. "Marvelous. Goblins! And nasty ones, too, I imagine." He sighed. "So, we can't stay here, or we'll freeze and starve to death. But if we go down the mountain, there's a band of goblins that will attack us." He eyed Oracle with outright anger.
"Do you have any good news for us at all?"
The news I give is true, not made,
But at least you have me for an aid.
Helaine snorted. "Why doesn't that make me feel any better?" she asked. Turning to Pixel and Score, she said, "Right, it's time to take stock of what we've got from Treen. Empty your pockets."
A few moments later, they had a very small pile indeed. There was Aranak's book of spells, which they hadn't yet had a chance to examine. There was the loose page that Score had brought from Earth, and the one they had found in Aranak's study. Both pages seemed to be written in either some unknown language or code that they couldn't read.
Another page you soon will find
If you keep the crown in mind.
Oracle's comment might be useful to consider, in good time. Right now, though, they continued with their inventory. The last item was a small pouch that the Bestials had given them. Helaine picked it up,
undid the strings, and emptied the contents onto the ground in front of them.
They all stared in amazement. Glittering in the light from the flames were three almost impossibly large gemstones. There was a large ruby, as red as blood; an emerald, greener than any meadow in the spring; and a sapphire so blue it put the sky to shame.
Score's fingers twitched, and he reached out for the emerald, which seemed to be calling to him. He remembered the dreams he'd been having, and the giant gemstone that had seemed to speak to him.
"This must be worth a fortune," he breathed, thinking how much it might fetch if sold to the right person in
New York. But that was just a reflex, a shadow of the old Score speaking. He knew, somehow, that this was more than just a precious stone. It felt as if there was a gem-shaped hole in his soul into which this happened to fit perfectly.
"More than that," Helaine replied, reverently picking up the sapphire and cupping it in her hands. For once, she seemed to be overcome by an emotion that wasn't anger.
"Yeah," was all Pixel could manage as his hands gingerly clasped the ruby and brought it up to where he could study the dancing reflections of firelight within the gem. This made Score gaze at the emerald.
He remembered the greenish light of his dreams.
Could they somehow be connected?
"I can hear a noise," Pixel said suddenly. "It sounds as if it's coming from inside the wall over there."
"Inside?" Helaine frowned. "But that's stupid. How could anything be inside solid rock? Oracle?" She turned to ask Oracle a question, then sighed in exasperation.
"He's gone again."
"Figures," Score muttered. He tried concentrating on the rock wall ahead of them, and gingerly reached out to touch it. There was a dull shaking that ran through his fingertips. "Hey!" he exclaimed. "There is something going on here! I can feel some sort of vibration."
"Stand back," Helaine ordered, drawing her sword.
"Oracle's right-I can feel some kind of attack on its way. I'm the best to face it first."
Though her tone irritated Score, he managed to force his anger down. She was right, of course. She was certainly the better fighter. But he was more powerful when it came to magic.
A moment later, there was a loud cracking sound and the entire back wall of the cave exploded outward.
Flying chips and lumps of rock sent the three companions reeling, as they tried to protect their faces. Dust in the air made Score cough, and he couldn't see anything for several seconds. But he could hear. There was a loud, raucous chorus of jubilant voices, all of them squeaky and grating. "We did it!" "Ha! There they are!" And, "Get 'em, lads! Now!"
Out of the hole in the wall poured a wave of what had to be goblins.