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Chapter Five

Keff walked into the airlock. He twitched down his tunic, checked his equipment, and concentrated on loosening his muscles one at a time until he stood poised and ready on the balls of his feet. With one final deep breath for confidence, he nodded to Carialle's camera and stepped forward.

Regretting more every second that she had been talked into his proposed course of action, Carialle slid open her airlock and dropped the ramp slowly to the ground. As she suspected, the flying eyes drifted closer to see what was going on. She fretted, wondering if they were capable of shooting at Keff. He had no shields, but he was right: if he didn't find the solution, they'd never be able to leave this place.

Keff walked out to the top of the ramp and held out both hands, palms up, to the levitating spheres. "I come in peace," he said.

The spheres surged forward in one great mass, then flit!, they disappeared in the direction of the distant mountains.

"That's rung the bell," Keff said, with satisfaction. "Spies of the evil wizard, my lady, cannot stand where good walks."

A whining alarm sounded. Carialle read her monitors.

"Do you feel it? The mean humidity of the immediate atmosphere has dropped. Those arching lines of stray power I felt crisscrossing overhead are strengthening directly above us. Power surge building, building . . ."

"I feel it," Keff said, licking dry lips. "My nape hair is standing up. Look!" he shouted, his voice ringing. "Here come our visitors!"

Nothing existed beyond three hundred meters away, but from that distance at point south-southwest, two objects came hurtling out of nonexistence one after the other, gaining dimensionality as they neared Carialle, until she could see them clearly. It took Keff a few long milliseconds more, but he gasped when his eyes caught sight of the new arrivals.

"Not the drones again," Keff said. "It's our wizard!"

"Not a wizard," Carialle corrected him. "Two."

Keff nodded as the second one exploded into sight after the first. "They're not Noble Primitives. They're another species entirely." He gawked. "Look at them, Cari! Actual humanoids, just like us!"

Carialle zoomed her lenses in for a good look. For once Keff's wishful thinking had come true. The visitor closest to Carialle's video pickup could have been any middle-aged man on any of the Central Worlds. Unlike the cave-dwelling farmers, the visitor had smooth facial skin with neither pelt, nor beard, nor mustache; and the hands were equipped with four fingers and an opposable thumb.

"Extraordinary. Vital signs, pulse elevated at eighty-five beats per minute, to judge by human standards from the flushed complexion and his expression. He's panting and cursing about something. Respiration between forty and sixty," Carialle reported through Keff's mastoid implant.

"Just like humans in stress!" Keff repeated, beatifically.

"So were Brannel and his people," Carialle replied, overlaying charts on her screen for comparison. "Except for superficial differences in appearance, this male and our Noble Primitives are alike. That's interesting. Did this new species evolve from the first group? If so, why didn't the Noble Primitive line dead-end? They should have ceased to exist when a superior mutation arose. And if the bald-faced ones evolved from the hairy ones, why are there so many different configurations of Noble Primitives like sheep, dogs, cats, and camels?"

"That's something I can ask them," Keff said, now subvocalizing as the first airborne rider neared him. He started to signal to the newcomer.

The barefaced male exhibited the haughty mien of one who expected to be treated as a superior being. He had beautiful, long-fingered hands folded over a slight belly indicative of a sedentary lifestyle and good food. Upright and dignified, he rode in an ornate contraption which resembled a chair with a toboggan runner for a base. In profile, it was an uncial "h" with an extended and flared bottom serif, a chariot without horses. Like the metal globes that had heralded the visitors' arrival, the dark green chair hovered meters above the ground with no visible means of propulsion.

"What is holding that up?" Keff asked. "Skyhooks?"

"Sheer, bloody, pure power," Carialle said. "Though, by the shell that preserves me, I can't see how he's manipulating it. He hasn't moved an extra muscle, but he's maneuvering like a space jockey."

"Psi," Keff said. "They've exhibited teleportation, and now telekinesis. Superpsi. All the mentat races humankind has encountered in the galaxy rolled together aren't as strong as these people. And they're so like humans. Hey, friend!" Keff waved an arm.

Paying no attention to Keff, the sledlike throne veered close to Carialle's skin and then spun on its axis to face the pink-gold chariot that followed, making the occupant of that one pull up sharply to avoid a midair collision. She sat up tall in her seat, eyes blazing with blue-green fire, waves of crisp bronze hair almost crackling with fury about her set face. Her slim figure attired in floating robes of ochre and gold chiffon, she seemed an ethereal being, except for her expression of extreme annoyance. She waved her long, thin hands in complex gestures and the man responded sneeringly in kind. Keff's mouth had dropped open.

"More sign language," Carialle said, watching the woman's gestures with a critical eye. "New symbols. IT didn't have them in the glossary before."

"I'm in love," Keff said, dreamily. "Or at least in lust. Who is she?"

"I don't know, but she and that male are angry at each other. They're fighting over something."

"I hope she wins." Keff sighed, making mooncalf eyes at the new arrival. "She sure is beautiful. That's some figure she's got. And that hair! Just the same color as her skin. Wonderful." The female sailed overhead and Keff's eyes lit up as he detected a lingering scent. "And she's wearing the most delicious perfume."

Carialle noted the rise in his circulation and respiration and cleared her throat impatiently.

"Keff! She's an indigenous inhabitant of a planet we happen to be studying. Please disengage fifteen-year-old hormones and re-enable forty-five-year-old brain. We need to figure out who they are so we can free my tail and get off this planet."

"I can't compartmentalize as easily as you can," Keff grumbled. "Can I help it if I appreciate an attractive lady?"

"I'm no more immune to beauty than you are," Carialle reminded him. "But if she's responsible for our troubles, I want to know why. I particularly want to know how!"

Across the field, some of the Noble Primitives had emerged from their burrow. Stooping in postures indicative of respect and healthy fear, they scurried toward the floating chairs, halting some distance away. Keff noticed Brannel among them, standing more erect than any of the others. Still defying authority, Keff thought, with wry admiration.

"Do you want to ask him what's going on?" Carialle said through the implant.

"Remember what he said about being punished for curiosity," Keff reminded her. "These are the people he's afraid of. If I single him out, he's in for it. I'll catch him later for a private talk."

The elder, Alteis, approached and bowed low to the two chair-holders. They ignored him, continuing to circle at ten meters, calling out at one another.

* * *

"I knew I could not trust you to wait for Nokias to lead us here, Asedow," Potria shouted angrily. "One day, your eagerness to thrust out your hand for power will result in having it cut off at the shoulder."

"You taunt me for breaking the rules when you also didn't wait," Asedow retorted. "Where's Nokias, then?"

"I couldn't let you claim by default," Potria said, "so your action forced me to follow at once. Now that I am here, I restate that I should possess the silver cylinder and the being inside. I will use it with greater responsibility than you."

"The Ancient Ones would laugh at your disingenuousness, Potria," Asedow said, scornfully. "You want them just to keep them from me. I declare," he shouted to the skies, "that I am the legitimate keeper of these artifacts sent down through the ages to me, and by my hope of promotion, I will use them wisely and well."

Potria circled Asedow, trying to get nearer to the great cylinder, but he cut her off again and again. She directed her chair to fly up and over him. He veered upward in a flash, cackling maddeningly. She hated him, hated him for thwarting her. At one time they had been friends, even toyed with the idea of becoming lovers. She had hoped that they could have been allies, taking power from Nokias and that bitch Iranika and ruling the South between them despite the fact that the first laws of the First Mages said only one might lead. She and Asedow could never agree on who that would be. As now, he wouldn't support her claim, and she wouldn't support his. So they were forced to follow archaic laws whose reasoning was laid down thousands of years ago and might never be changed. The two of them were set against one another like mad vermin in a too-small cage. She or Asedow must conquer, must be the clear winner in the final contest. Potria had determined in her deepest heart that she would be the victor.

The rustle in her mystic hearing told her that Asedow was gathering power from the ley lines for an attack. He had but to chase her away or knock her unconscious, and the contest was his. Killing was unnecessary and would only serve to make High Mage Nokias angry by depriving him of a strong subject and ally. Potria began to wind in the threads of power between her fingers, garnering and gathering until she had a web large enough to throw over him. It would contain the force of Asedow's spell and knock him out.

"That one is unworthy," she heard Asedow call out. "Let me win, not her!"

Stretching the smothering web on her thumbs, she spread out her arms wide in the prayer sign, hands upright and palms properly turned in toward her to contain the blessing.

"In the name of Ureth, the Mother World of Paradise, I call all powers to serve me in this battle," she chanted.

Asedow flashed past her in his chariot, throwing his spell. Raising herself, Potria dropped her spread counter-spell on top of him and laughed as his own blast of power caught him. His chair wobbled unsteadily to a halt a hundred meters distant. His cursing was audible and he was very angry. He switched his chair about on its axis. She saw his face, dark with blood as a thundercloud. He panted heavily.

"Thought you would have an easy win, did you?" Potria called, tauntingly. She began to ready an attack of her own. Something not fatal but appropriate. 

She felt disturbances in the ether. More mages were coming, probably attracted by the buildup of power in this barren, uninteresting place. Potria changed the character of the cantrip she was molding. If she was to have an audience, she would give a good show and make a proper fool of Asedow.

By now, her opponent hovered invisible in a spell-cloud of dark green smoke that roiled and rumbled. Potria fancied she even saw miniature lightnings flash within its depths. He, too, had observed the arrival of more of their magical brethren, and it made him impatient. He struck while his spell was still insufficiently prepared. Potria laughed and raised a single, slim hand, fingers spread. The force bounced off the globe of protection she had wrought about herself, rushed outward, and exploded on contact with the nearest solid object, a tree, setting it ablaze. Some of it rebounded upon Asedow, shaking his chariot so hard that he nearly lost control of it.

Having warded off Asedow's pathetic attack, Potria stole a swift look at the newly arrived mages. They were all minor lights from the East, probably upset that she and Asedow had crossed the border into their putative realm. By convention, they were bound to stay out of the middle of a fairly joined battle, and so they hovered on the sidelines, swearing about the invasion by southern mages. So long as they kept out of her way until she won, she didn't care what they thought of her.

* * *

Keff saw the five new arrivals blink into existence, well beyond the battleground. The first two came to such a screeching halt that he wondered if they had hurried to the scene at a dead run and were having trouble braking. The others proceeded with more caution toward the circling combatants.

"The first arrivals remind me of something," Keff said, "but I can't put my finger on what. Great effect, that sudden stop!"

"It looked like Singularity Drive," Carialle said, critically. "Interesting that they've duplicated the effect unprotected and in atmosphere."

"That's big magic," Keff said.

The new five were no sooner at the edge of the field than the magiman and magiwoman let off their latest volley at each other.

Smoke exploded in a plume from the green storm cloud. It was shot along its expanse with lightning and booms of thunder. Enwrapping the magiwoman in its snakelike coils, it closed into a murky sphere with the golden female at its center. Lights flashed inside and Keff heard a scream. Whether it was fury, fear, or pain he couldn't determine.

Suddenly, the sphere broke apart. The smoke dissipated on the evening sky, leaving the female free. Her hair had escaped from its elegant coif and stood out in crackling tendrils. The shoulder of her robe was burned away, showing the tawny flesh beneath. Eyes sparking, she levitated upward, arms gathering and gathering armfuls of nothing to her breast. Her hands chopped forward, and lightning, liquid electricity, flew at her opponent.

The male crossed his forearms before himself in a gesture intended to ward away the attack, but only managed to deflect some of it. Tiny fingers of white heat peppered his legs and the runner of his chair, burning holes in his robe and scorching the vehicle's ornamentation. In order to escape, he had to move away from Carialle toward the open fields, where the lightning ceased to pursue him. Triumphantly, the female sailed in and spiraled around the brainship in a kind of victory lap. In front of the ship, a translucent brick wall built itself up row by row, until it was as tall as Carialle herself.

Keff stared.

"Are they fighting over us?" he asked in disbelief.

Carialle took umbrage at the suggestion. "How dare they?" she said. "This is my ship, not the competition trophy!"

The male did not intend to give up easily. As soon as the cloud of lightning was gone, he headed back toward the ship. Between his hands a blue-white globe was forming. He threw it directly at the brick wall and the enchantress behind it.

The female was insufficiently prepared and the ball caught her in the belly. It knocked her chair back hundreds of meters, past the hovering strangers who hastily shifted out of her way. The illusory wall vanished. With a cry, the female flew in, arching her fingers like a cat's claws. Scarlet fire shot from each one, focusing on the male. His chair bounced up in the air and turned a full loop. Miraculously, he kept his seat. He tried to regain his original position near Carialle.

"They are fighting over me. The unmitigated gall of the creatures!"

* * *

At the first sign of mystic lightning, the workers had judiciously fled to a safe distance from which they avidly watched the battle. Ignoring Alteis's hissed commands to keep his head down, Brannel watched the overlords hungrily, as his eyes had earlier fed on Keff. Maybe this time a miracle would occur and one of them would drop an object of power. In the confusion of battle, it would go unnoticed until he, Brannel, dove for it and made it his own. Mere possession of an object of power might not make one a mage, but he wanted to find out. All his life he had cherished dreams of learning to fly or control lightning.

The odds against his success were immense. The mages were the mages, and the workers were the workers, to live, die, or serve at the whim of their overlords, never permitted to look above their lowly station. Until today, when Mage Keff arrived out of the sky, Brannel had never thought there was a third way of life. The stranger was not a mage by Ozran standards, since the overlords were fighting over him as if he wasn't there; but he was certainly not a worker. He must be something in between, a stepping stone from peasant to power. Brannel knew Keff could help him rise above his lowborn status and gain a place among mages, but how to win his favor and his aid? He had already been of service to Mage Keff. Perhaps he could render other services, provided that Keff survived the contest going on above his head.

Brannel had recognized Magess Potria and Mage Asedow by their colors while his peers were too afraid to lift their heads out of the dust. He'd give his heart and the rest of his fingers to be able to spin spells as they did. In spite of the damage that the combatants were doing to one another, not a tendril of smoke nor a tongue of flame had even come close to Keff, who was watching the battle rage calmly and without fear. Brannel admired the stranger's courage. Keff would be a powerful mentor. Together they would fight the current order, letting worthy ones from the lowest caste ascend to rule as their intelligence merited. That is, if Keff survived the war in which he was one of the prizes.

* * *

"A world of wizards, my lady!" Keff chortled gleefully to Carialle. "They're doing magic! No wonder you can't find a power source. There isn't one. This is pure evocation of power from the astral plane of the galaxy."

The beautiful woman zipped past him in her floating chair, hands busy between making signs and spells. He adjusted IT to register all motions and divide them between language and ritual by repeat usage and context. He was also picking up on a second spoken language or dialect. IT had informed him that Brannel had used some of the terms, and Keff wondered at the linguistic shift from one species to the other.

"Magical evocation is hardly scientific, Keff," Carialle reminded him. "They're getting power from somewhere, that's for sure. I can even follow some of the buildup a short way out, but then I lose it in the random emanations."

"It comes from the ether," Keff said, rapt. "It's magic."

"Stop calling it that. We're not playing the game now," Carialle said sharply. "We're witnessing sophisticated manipulation of power, not abracadabra-something-out-of-nothing."

"Look at it logically," Keff said, watching the male lob a hand-sized ball of flame over his head at his opponent. "How else would you explain being able to fly without engines or to appear in midair?"


"And how about knitting lightning between your hands? Or causing smoke and fireballs without fuel? This is the stuff of legends. Magic."

"It's sophisticated legerdemain, I'll grant that much, but there's a logical explanation, too."

Keff laughed. "There is a logical explanation. We've discovered a planet where the laws of magic are the laws of science."

"Well, there's physics, anyhow," Carialle said. "Our magimen up there are beginning to fatigue. Their energy levels aren't infinite."

Ripostes and return attacks were slowing down. The magiwoman maintained an expression of grim amusement throughout the conflict, while the magiman couldn't disguise his annoyance.

As if attracted by the conflict, a bunch of globe-frogs appeared out of the brushy undergrowth at the edge of the crop fields. They rolled into the midst of the Noble Primitives, who were huddled into the gap, watching the aerial battle. The indigenes avoided contact with the small creatures by kicking out at them so that the globes turned away. The little group trundled their conveyances laboriously out into the open and paused underneath the sky-borne battle. Keff watched their bright black eyes focus on the combatants. They seemed fascinated.

"Look, Carialle," Keff said, directing his contact-button camera toward them. "Are they attracted by motion, or light? You'd think they'd be afraid of violent beings much larger than themselves."

"Perhaps they are attracted to power, like moths to a candle flame," Carialle said, "although, mind you, I've never seen moths or candles in person. I'm not an expert in animal behaviorism, but I don't think the attraction is unusual. Incautious, to the point of self-destructive, perhaps. Either of our psi-users up there could wipe them out with less power than it would take to hold up those chairs."

The two mages, sailing past, parrying one another's magic bolts and making their own thrusts, ignored the cluster which trailed them around the field. At last the little creatures gave up their hopeless pursuit, and rolled in a group toward Keff and Carialle.

"Your animal magnetism operating again," Carialle noted. The globe-frogs, paddling hard on the inner wall of their spherelike conveyances with their oversize paws, steered over the rocky ground and up the ramp, making for the inside of the ship. "Ooops, wait a minute! You can't come in here. Out!" she said, in full voice on her hatchway speakers. "Scat!"

The frogs ignored her. She tracked them with her internal cameras and directed her servos into the airlock to herd them out the door again. The frogs made a few determined tries to get past the low-built robots. Thwarted, they reversed position inside their globes and paddled the other way.

"Pests," Carialle said. "Is everyone on this planet intent on a free tour of my interior?"

The globe-frogs rolled noisily down the ramp and off the rise toward the underbrush at the opposite end of the clearing. Keff watched them disappear.

"I wonder if they're just attracted to any vibrations or emissions," he said.

"Could be—Heads up!" Carialle trumpeted suddenly. She put her servos into full reverse to get them out of Keff's way. Without waiting to ask why or what, Keff dove sideways into Carialle's hatch and hit the floor. A split second later, he felt a flamethrowerlike blast of heat almost singe his cheek. If he'd remained standing where he was, he'd have gotten a faceful of fire.

"They're out of control! Get in here!" Carialle cried.

Keff complied. The battle had become more serious, and the magic-users had given up caring where their bolts hit. Another spell flared out of the tips of the woman's fingers at the male, only a dozen meters from Keff.

The brawn tucked and rolled through the inner door. Carialle slid the airlock door shut almost on his heels. Keff heard a whine of stressed metal as something else hit the side of the ship.

"Yow!" Carialle protested. "That blast was cold! How are they doing that?"

Keff ran to the central cabin viewscreens and dropped into his crash seat.

"Full view, please, Cari!"

The brain obliged, filling the three surrounding walls with a 270° panorama.

Keff spun his pilot's couch to follow the green contrail across the sky, as the male magician retreated to the far end of the combat zone. He looked frustrated. The last, unsuccessful blast that hit Carialle's flank must have been his. The female, beautiful, powerful, sitting up high in her chair, prepared another attack with busy hands. Her green eyes were dulling, as if she didn't care where her strike might land. The five magimen on the sidelines looked bored and angry, just barely restraining themselves from interfering. The battle would end soon, one way or another.

Even inside the ship, Keff felt the sudden change in the atmosphere. His hair, including his eyebrows and eyelashes and the hair on his arms, crackled with static. Something momentous was imminent. He leaned in toward the central screen.

Out of nothingness, three new arrivals in hover-chairs blinked into the heart of the battle zone. Inadvertently Keff recoiled against the back of his chair.

"Yow! They mean business," Carialle said "No hundred meters of clearance space. Just smack, right into the middle."

The spells the combatants were building dissipated like colored smoke on the wind. Carialle's gauges showed a distinct drop in the electromagnetic fields. The mage and magess dropped their hands stiffly onto their chair arms and glared at the obstacles now hovering between them. If looks could have ignited rocket fuel, the thwarted combatants would have set Carialle's tanks ablaze. Whatever was powering them had been cut off by the three in the center.

"Uh-oh. The Big Mountain Men are here," Keff said flippantly, his face guarded

The newcomers' chairs were bigger and gaudier than any Keff and Carialle had yet seen. A host of smaller seats, containing lesser magicians, popped in to hover at a respectful distance outside the circle. Their presence was ignored by the three males who were obviously about to discipline the combatants.

"Introductions," Keff said monitoring IT. "High and mighty. The lad in the gold is Nokias, the one in black is Ferngal, and the silver one in the middle who looks so nervous is Chaumel. He's a diplomat."

Carialle observed the placatory gestures of the mage in the silver chair. "I don't think that Ferngal and Nokias like each other much."

But Chaumel, nodding and smiling, floated suavely back and forth between the gold and black in his silver chair and managed to persuade them to nod at one another with civility if not friendliness. The lesser magicians promptly polarized into two groups, reflecting their loyalties.

"Compliments to the Big Mountain Men from my pretty lady and her friend." Keff continued, "She's Potria, and he's Asedow. One of the sideliners says they were something—bold? cocky?—to come here. Aha, that's what that word Brannel used meant: forbidden! That gives me some roots for some of the other things they're saying. I'll have to backtrack the datahedrons—I think a territorial dispute is going on."

Nokias and Ferngal each spoke at some length. Keff was able to translate a few of the compliments the magimen paid to each other.

"Something about high mountains," he said, running IT over contextual data. "Yes, I think that repeated word must be 'power,' so Ferngal is referring to Nokias as having power as high, I mean, strong as the high mountains and deep as its roots." He laughed. "It's the same pun we have in Standard, Cari. He used the same word Brannel used for the food 'roots.' The farmers and the magicians do use two different dialects, but they're related. It's the cognitive differences I find fascinating. Completely alien to any language in my databanks."

"All this intellectual analysis is very amusing," Carialle said, "but what are they saying? And more to the point, how does it affect us?"

She shifted cameras to pick up Potria and Asedow on separate screens. After the speeches by the two principals, the original combatants were allowed their say, which they had with many interruptions from the other and much pointing towards Carialle.

"Those are definitively possessive gestures," Keff said uneasily.

"No one puts a claim on my ship," Carialle said firmly. "Which one of them has a tractor beam on me? I want it off."

Keff listened to the translator and shook his head. "Neither one did it, I think. It may be a natural phenomenon."

"Then why isn't it grounding any of those chairs?"

"Cari, we don't know that's what is happening."

"I have a pretty well-developed sense of survival, and that's exactly what it's telling me."

"Well, then, we'll tell them you own your ship, and they can't have it," Keff said, reasonably. "Wait, the diplomat's talking."

The silver-robed magician had his hands raised for attention and spoke to the assemblage at some length, only glancing over his shoulder occasionally. Asedow and Potria stopped shouting at each other, and the other two Big Mountain Men looked thoughtful. Keff tilted his head in amusement.

"Look at that: Chaumel's got them all calmed down. Say, he's coming this way."

The silver chariot left the others and floated toward Carialle, settling delicately a dozen feet from the end of the ramp. The two camps of magicians hovered expectantly over the middle of the field, with expressions that ranged from nervous curiosity to open avarice. The magician rose and walked off the end of the chair's finial to stand beside it. Hands folded over his belly, he bowed to the ship.

"So they can stand," Carialle said. "I gather from the shock on the faces of our Noble Primitives over there that that's unusual. I guess these magicians don't go around on foot very often."

"No, indeed. When you have mystic powers from the astral plane, I suppose auto-ambulatory locomotion is relegated to the peasants."

"He's waiting for something. Does he expect us to signal him? Invite him in for tea?"

Keff peered closely at Chaumel's image. "I think we'd better wait and let him make the first move. Ah! He's coming to pay us a visit. A state visit, my lady."

Chaumel got over his internal debate and, with solemn dignity, made his way to the end of the ramp, every step slow and ponderous. He reached the tip and paused, bowing deeply once again.

"I feel honored," Carialle said. "If I'd'a known he was coming I'd'a baked a cake."


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