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Chapter Nine

Keff fell down and down toward a dark abyss. Frigid winds screamed upward, freezing his face and his hands, which were thrust above his head by his descent. The horizontal blur that was the faces and costumes of the magifolk was replaced by a vertical blur of gray and black and tan. He was falling through a narrow tunnel of rough stone occasionally lit by streaks of garishly colored light. His hands grasped out at nothing; his feet sought for support and found none.

Gargoyle faces leered at him, gibbering. Flying creatures with dozens of clawed feet swooped down to worry his hair and shoulders. Momentum snapped his head back so he was staring up at a point of light far, far above him that swayed with every one of his heartbeats. The movement made him giddy. His stomach squeezed hard against his rib cage. He was in danger of losing what little he had been able to eat. The wind bit at his ears, and his teeth chattered. He forced his mouth closed, sought for control.

"Carialle, help! I'm falling! Where am I?"

The brain's tone was puzzled.

"You haven't moved at all, Keff. You're still in the middle of Chaumel's dining room. Everyone is watching you, and having a good time, I might add. Er, you're staring at the ceiling."

Keff tried to justify her observation with the terrifying sensation of falling, the close stone walls, and the gargoyles, and suddenly all fear fled. He was furious. The abyss was an illusion! It was all an illusion cast to punish him. Damn their manipulation!

"That is enough of this nonsense!" he bellowed.

Abruptly, all sensation stopped. The buzzing he suddenly felt through his feet bothered him, so he moved, and found himself lurching about on the slick floor, struggling for balance. With a yelp, he tripped forward, painfully bruising his palms and knees. He blinked energetically, and the points of light around him became ensconced torches, and the pale oval of Plennafrey's face. She looked concerned. Keff guessed that she was the one who had broken the spell holding his mind enthralled.

"Thank you," he said. His voice sounded hollow in his own ears. He sat back on his haunches and gathered himself to stand up.

He became aware that the other magifolk were glaring at the young woman. Chaumel was angry, Nokias shocked, Potria mute with outrage. Plenna lifted her small chin and stared back unflinchingly at her superiors. Keff wondered how he had ever thought her to be weak. She was magnificent.

"Her heartbeat's up. Respiration, too. She's in trouble with them," Carialle said. "She's the junior member here—I'd say the youngest, too, by a decade—and she spoiled her seniors' fun. Naughty. Oops, more power spikes."

Keff felt insubstantial tendrils of thought trying to insinuate themselves into his mind They were rudely slapped away by a new touch, one that felt/scented lightly of wildflowers. Plennafrey was defending him. Another sally by other minds managed to get an image of bloody, half-eaten corpses burning in a wasteland into his consciousness before they were washed out by fresh, cool air.

"Keff, what's wrong?" Carialle asked. "Adrenaline just kicked up."

"Psychic attacks," he said, through gritted teeth. "Trying to control my mind."

He fought to think of anything but the pictures hammering at his consciousness. He pictured a cold beer, until it dissolved inexorably into a river of green, steaming poison. He switched to the image of dancing in an anti-grav disco with a dozen girls. They became vulpine-winged harpies picking at his flesh as he swung on a gibbet. Keff thought deliberately of exercise, mentally pulling the Rotoflex handles to his chest one at a time, concentrating on the burn of his chest and neck muscles. Such a small focus seemed to bewilder his tormentors as they sought to corrupt that one thought and regain control.

Sooner or later the magifolk would break through, and he would never know the difference between his own consciousness and what they planted in his thoughts. He felt a twinge of despair. Nothing in his long travels had prepared him to defend himself against this kind of power. How much more could he withstand? If they continued, he'd soon be blurting out the story of his life—and his life with Carialle.

Not that—he wouldn't! Angrily, he steeled his will. If he couldn't protect himself, he couldn't guard Carialle. Even at the cost of his own life he must prevent them from finding out about her. Her danger would be worse than his, and worse than what had happened to her that time before they became partners.

The Rotoflex handles of his imagination became knives that he plunged agonizingly again and again into his own breast. He forced his mental self to drop them. They burst into flames that rose up to burn his arms. He could feel the hair crackling on his forearms. Then a soft rain began to fall. The fire died with hisses of disappointment. Keff almost smiled. Plennafrey again.

He was grateful for the young magiwoman's intercession. How long could she hold out against the combined force of her elders? He could almost feel the mental sparks flying between Plennafrey and the others. She was actually holding her own, which was causing consternation and outrage among them. The outwardly calm standoff threatened to turn into worse.

"Small power spikes," Carialle announced. "A jab to the right. Ooh, a counter to the left. A roundhouse punch—what was that?"

Keff felt himself gripped by an invisible force. Slowly, like the rope-dancers, he began to revolve in midair, this time without his chair. He turned faster and faster and faster. What little remained of his original delight at having discovered a race of magicians was fast disappearing in the waves of nausea roiling his long-suffering stomach. He tried to touch the floor, or one of the other mages, but nothing was within reach. Faster, faster, faster he turned, until the room was divided into strata of light and color. Images began to invade his consciousness, accompanied by shrieks tinged with fear and anger, shriveling his nerves. He could feel nothing but pain, and the roaring in his head overwhelmed his other senses.

Keff felt a touch on the arm, and suddenly he was staggering weak-kneed across the slick floor behind Plennafrey. She had abandoned the battle in favor of saving him. Holding his hand firmly, she made for the open doors.

Chaumel's transparent wall proved no barrier. Plennafrey plunged her hand under her sash to her belt, and a hole opened in the wall just before they reached it, letting a cloud of dust whip past them into the room. Coughing, she and Keff dashed out onto the landing pad. Keff remembered what Carialle had said about color coordination and ran after the girl toward the blue-green chair at the extreme edge of the balcony. His feet were unsteady on the humming floor, but he forced himself to cover the distance almost on the young woman's heels.

She threw herself into her chariot, hoisted him in, too. Without ceremony, the chair swept off into the night. Behind him, Keff saw other magifolk running for their chairs. He saw Chaumel shake a fist up at them, and suddenly, the image blanked out.

* * *

They emerged into a vast, torchlit, stony cavern that extended off into the distance to both left and right. Plenna paused a split second and turned the chair to the right. Her big, dark eyes were wide open, her head turning to see first one side, then the other as they passed. Keff hung on as the chair skipped up to miss a stalagmite and ducked a low cave mouth. He gasped. The air tasted moist and mineral heavy.

"Where are you?" Carialle's voice exploded in his ear. "Damnation, I hate that!"

"Watch the volume, Cari!"

Sound level much abated, Carialle continued. "You are approximately nine hundred meters directly below your previous location, heading south along a huge system of connected underground caverns. Hmm!"

"What?" he demanded, then bit his tongue as Plennafrey's chair dodged through a narrow pipe and out into a cavern the bottom of which dropped away like the illusionary abyss.

"I'm reading some of those electromagnetic lines down there, not far from you, but not intersecting the tunnel you are currently traveling."

"Where are we going?" he asked the girl.

"Where we will be safe," she said curtly. Her forehead was wrinkled and she was hunched forward as if straining to push something with her shoulders.

"Is there something wrong?"

"It's the lee lines," she said. "Where we are is weak. I'm drawing on ones very far away. We must reach the strong ones to escape, but Chaumel stops me."

"Lee lines?" Keff said, asking for further explanation. Then a memory struck him and he sent IT running through similar-sounding names in Standard language. It came up with "ley," which it defined as "adjective, archaic, related to mystical power." Very similar, Keff noted, and turned his head to mention it.

The chair bounced, hitting a small outcropping of rock, and Keff felt his rump leave the platform. He gripped the edges until his knuckles whitened. The air whistled in his ears.

"What if you can't reach the strong ley lines?" he shouted.

"We can get most of the way to my stronghold through down here," the girl said, not looking down at him. "It will take longer, but the mountains are hollow below. Oh!"

Ahead of them, the air thickened, and a dozen chariots took shape. These swooped in at Keff and the girl, who took a hairpin curve in midair and looped back toward the narrow passage. Keff caught a glimpse of Chaumel in the lead, glittering like a star. The silver mage grinned ferociously at them.

Asedow spurred his green chariot faster to beat Chaumel to Plenna's vehicle. He succeeded only in creating a minor traffic jam blocking the neck of stone as Plennafrey disappeared into it. By the time they straightened themselves out, their prey had a head start.

Plennafrey retraced their path through the forest of onyx pillars. Keff leaned back against her knees as she cut a particularly sharp turn to avoid the same outcropping as on the way out. Keff glanced up at her face and found it calm, intense, alert, pale and lovely as a lily. He shook his head, wondering how he had possibly missed noticing her before. He risked a quick glance back.

Far behind them, the magimen in pursuit were coming to grief amidst the stalactite clusters. Keff heard shouts of anger, then warning, and not long after, a crash. Their pursuers were down to eleven.

"The passage widens out beyond the junction where you first appeared," Carialle said, narrating from her soundings of the underground system. "Life-forms ahead."

They swooped under a low overhang that marked the boundary of the next limestone bubble cavern. Keff smelled food and squinted ahead in the torchlight. The smell of hot food blended with the cold, wet, limestone scent of the caves. Before them lay the subterranean kitchens whose existence Carialle had postulated. Compared to the frosty ambient temperature above, this place was positively tropical. Keff felt his cheeks reddening from the heat that washed them. Plennafrey turned slightly pink. Scores of fur-faced cooks and assistants hurried around like ants, carrying pots and pans to the huge, multi-burner stoves lined up against the walls or hauling full platters of cooked food to vast tables that ran down the center of the chamber.

"Natural gas, geothermal heat," Carialle said. "The catering service for the nine circles of Hell."

In one corner, discarded like toy dishes in a doll's tea set, were hundreds of bowls, plates, and platters, sent back untouched from upstairs by fussy diners.

"What a waste," Keff said as they passed over the trash heap. The reeking fumes of deteriorating food made his eyes water. He gasped.

Avoiding a low point in the ceiling, the chariot bore down on the cooks, who dropped their pans and dishes and dove for cover. The bottom of the runner struck something soft, but kept going. Keff glanced behind them and saw the ruins of a tall cake and the pastry chef's stricken face.

"Sorry!" Keff called.

Behind them, the magimen on their chariots swooped into the cavern, shouting for Plennafrey to surrender her prize. Bolts of red fire struck past them, impacting the stone walls with explosive reports. Chunks of stone rained down on the screaming cooks. Plennafrey jerked the chariot downward, and a lightning stroke passed over them, shattering a stalactite into bits just before they reached it. Keff threw his hands up before his face just a split second too late, and ended up spitting out limestone sand.

"Don't damage anything!" Chaumel yelled. "My kitchen!" Keff saw him frantically making warding symbols with his hands, sending spells to protect his property.

Plennafrey stole a look over her shoulder and poured on the speed. She pulled Keff's body back against her legs. He looked up at her for explanation.

She said, "I need my hands," and immediately began weaving her own enchantments in a series of complex passes. Keff braced himself between the end of the chariot back and the chair legs to keep Plennafrey from bouncing out of her seat.

The cavern narrowed sharply at its far end, forcing them farther and farther toward the floor. Fur-faced Noble Primitives who had been throwing themselves down to get out of their way went entirely flat or slammed into the wall as Plennafrey's chariot flashed by. Females shrieked and males let out hoarse-voiced cries of alarm.

Scarlet fire ricocheted from wall to wall, missing the blue-green chariot by hand-spans. The young magiwoman launched off fist-sized globes of smoky nothingness, flinging them behind her back. Keff, intent on the wall above the cave mouth zooming toward them, heard cries and protests, followed by a series of explosive puffs.

Plennafrey resumed control of her chair just in time to direct them sharply down and into the stone tunnel. This must have been the central corridor of Chaumel's underground complex. Hundreds of Noble Primitives dropped their burdens and dove for cover as he and Plennafrey zoomed through. Skillfully zigzagging, dipping, and rising, she avoided each living being and stone pillar in the long tube.

"She's good on this thing," Keff confided to Carialle. "What a rocket-cycle jockey she'd make."

To right and left, several smaller tunnels offered themselves. Plennafrey glanced at each one as they passed. With the inadequate light of torches, Keff could see no details more than a dozen feet up each one. The magiwoman bit her lip, then banked a turn into the ninth right.

"Keff, not that one!" Carialle said urgently.


Keff heard Chaumel's crow of victory, and view-halloo cries from the other pursuers. He wondered why they sounded so pleased.

Plenna dodged against the left wall to avoid colliding with a grossly-wheeled wagon pulled by six-packs and piled high with garbage. There was barely enough space for both of them, but somehow the magiwoman made it by. After a short interval, Keff heard a few loud scrapes, and a couple of hard splats, followed by furious and derisive yells. Two more magimen would be abandoning the race as they went home to clean refuse out of their gorgeous robes. Another scrape ended in a sickening-sounding crunch. Keff guessed the magiman on that chariot had misjudged the space between the cart and the wall. That left eight in pursuit. Keff risked a glance. The silver glimmer at the front was Chaumel, and behind him the dark green of Asedow, the pink-gold of Potria, Nokias's gold, and the shadow that was Ferngal were grouped in his wake. More ranged behind them, but he couldn't identify them.

Plennafrey wound her way through the irregular, narrowing corridor, tossing spells over her shoulder to slow her pursuers.

"I would turn around and weave a web to snare them," she said, "but I dare not take my eyes off our path."

"I agree with you wholeheartedly, lady," Keff said. "Keep your eyes on the road. Look, it's lighter up ahead."

A lessening of the gloom before them suggested a larger chamber, with more room to maneuver. Plenna crested the high threshold and let out a moan of dismay. The room widened out into a big cavern, but it was as smooth and featureless as a bubble. Racks and racks of bottles lined the lower half of the walls. No spaces between them suggested any way out.

"A dead end," Keff said, in a flat tone. "We're in Chaumel's wine cellar. No wonder he was gloating."

"I was trying to tell you," Carialle spoke up in a contrite voice. "You weren't listening."

"I'm sorry, Cari. It was a wild ride," Keff said.

Plennafrey turned in a loop that brought Keff's heart up into his throat and made for the narrow entrance, but it was suddenly filled by Chaumel and the rest of the posse. Plennafrey reversed her chair until she was hovering in the center of the room. Eight chairs surrounded her, looking like a hanging jury.

" . . . And it looks like it's over."

"There you are, my friends. You left us too soon," Chaumel said. "Magess Plennafrey, you overreached yourself. You misunderstand how reluctant we are to allow such prizes as this stranger and his tower to be won by the least of our number."

Keff felt Plenna's knees tighten against his back.

"Perhaps he does not want to be anyone's property," she said. "I will leave him his freedom."

"You do not have the right to make that choice, Magess," Nokias said. He stretched out his arms and planted one big hand across the ring that encircled his other wrist. Keff braced himself as red bolts shot out of the bracelet, enveloping him and the floating chair.

An invisible rod collected the bolts, diverting them harmlessly down into nothingness. The astonished look on Nokias's face said that he neither expected Plennafrey to defy him nor to be able to counteract his attack.

"That's what hit you on the plain," Carialle whispered in Keff's ear. "Same frequency. It must have been Nokias. My, he looks surprised."

The other magimen lifted their objects of power, preparing an all-out assault on their errant member.

"Please, friends," Chaumel said, moving between them toward the wary pair in the center. His eyes were glowing with a mad, inner light. "Allow me."

He took the wand from the sleeve on his belt and raised it. Keff glanced up at Plennafrey. The magiwoman, glaring defiance, began to wind up air in her arms.

"I see what she's doing," Carialle said, her voice alarmed. "Keff, tell her not to teleport again. I won't—"

The cavern exploded in a brilliant white flash.

* * *

Except for the absence of eight angry magimen, Keff and Plennafrey might not have moved. They were in the center of a globe hewn from the bare rock. Then Keff noticed that the walls were rougher and the ceiling not so high. Plennafrey hastily brought the chair to earth. She sighed a deep breath of relief. Keff seconded it.

He sprang up and offered her his hand. With a small smile, she reached out and took it, allowing him to assist her from the chair.

"My lady, I want to thank you very sincerely for saving my life," Keff said, bowing over their joined hands. When he looked up, Plenna was pink, but whether with pleasure or embarrassment Keff wasn't sure.

"I could not let them treat you like chattel," she said. "I feel you are a true man for all you are not one of us."

"A true man offers homage to a true lady," Keff said, bowing again. Plennafrey freed herself and turned away, clutching her hand against herself shyly. Keff smiled.

"What pretty manners you have," Carialle's voice said. It sounded thin and very far away. "You're forty-five degrees of planetary arc away from your previous location. I just had time to trace you before your power burst dissipated. You're in a small bubble pocket along another one of those long cavern complexes. What is this place?"

"I was just about to ask that." Keff looked around him. "Lady, where are we?"

Unlike Chaumel's wine cellar, this place didn't smell overpoweringly of wet limestone and yeast. The slight mineral scent of the air mixed with a fragrant, powdery perfume. Though large, the room had the sensation of intimacy. A comfortable-looking, overstuffed chair sprawled in the midst of little tables, fat floor pillows, and toy animals. Against one wall, a small bed lay securely tucked up beneath a thick but worn counterpane beside a table of trinkets. Above it, a hanging lamp with a cobalt-blue shade, small and bright like a jewel, glowed comfortingly. Keff knew it to be the private bower of a young lady who had taken her place as an adult but was not quite ready to give up precious childhood treasures.

"It is my . . . place," Plennafrey said IT missed the adjective, but Keff suspected the missing word was "secret" or "private." Seeing the young woman's shy pride, he felt sure no other eyes but his had ever seen this sanctuary. "We are safe here."

"I'm honored," Keff said sincerely, returning his gaze to Plennafrey. She smiled at him, watchful. He glanced down at the bedside shelf, chose a circular frame from which the images of several people projected slightly. He picked it up, brought it close to his eyes for Carialle to analyze.

"Holography," Carialle said at once. "Well, not exactly. Similar effect, but different technique."

Keff turned the frame in his hands. The man standing at the rear was tall and thin, with black hair and serious eyebrows. He had his hands on the shoulders of two boys who resembled him closely. The small girl in the center of the grouping had to be a younger version of Plennafrey. "Your family?"


"Handsome folks. Where do they live?"

She looked away. "They're all dead," she said.

"I am sorry," Keff said.

Plennafrey turned her face back toward him, and her eyes were red, the lashes fringed with tears. She fumbled with the long, metallic sash, lifted it up over her head, and flung it as far across the room as she could. It jangled against the wall and slithered to the floor.

"I hate what that means. I hate being a magess. I would have been so happy if not for . . ." IT tried to translate her speech, and fell back to suggesting roots for the words she used. None of it made much sense to Keff, but Carialle interrupted him.

"I think she killed them, Keff," she said, alarmed. "Didn't Chaumel say that the only way to advance in the ranks was by stealing artifacts and committing murder? You're shut up in a cave with a madwoman. Don't make her angry. Get out of there."

"I don't believe that," Keff said firmly. "They all died, you said? Do you want to tell me about it?" He took both the girl's hands in his. She flinched, trying to pull away, but Keff, with a kind, patient expression, kept a steady, gentle pressure on her wrists. He led her to the overstuffed foot-rest and made her sit down. "Tell me. Your family died, and you inherited the power objects they had, is that right? You don't mean you were actually instrumental in their deaths."

"I do," Plenna said, her nose red. "I did it. My father was a very powerful mage. He . . . ed Nokias himself."

"Rival," IT rapped out crisply. Keff nodded.

"They both wished the position of Mage of the South, but Nokias took it. Losing the office troubled him. Over days and days—time, he went—" Helplessly, she fluttered fingers in the vicinity of her temple, not daring to say the word out loud.

"He went mad," Keff said. Plenna dropped her eyes.

"Yes. He swore he would rival the Ancient Ones. Then he decided having children had diminished his power. He wanted to destroy us to get it back."

"Horrible," Keff said. "He was mad. No one in his right mind would ever think of killing his children."

"Don't say that!" Plennafrey begged him. "I loved my father. He had to keep his position. You don't know what it's like on Ozran. Any sign of weakness, and someone else will . . . step in."

"Go on," Keff said gravely. Aided occasionally by IT, Plennafrey continued.

"There is not much to tell. Father tried many rituals to build up his connection with the Core of Ozran and thereby increase his power, but they were always unsuccessful. One day, two years ago, I was studying ley lines, and I felt hostile power stronging up. . . ."

"Building up," interjected IT.

"As I had been taught to do, I defended myself, making power walls. . . ."

"Warding?" Keff asked, listening to IT's dissection of the roots of her phrase.

"Yes, and feeding power back along the lines from which they came. There was more than I had ever felt." The girl's pupils dilated, making her eyes black as she relived the scene. "I was out on our balcony. Then I was surrounded by hot fire. I built up and threw the power away from me as hard as I could. It took all the strength I had. The power rushed back upon its sender. It went past me into our stronghold. I felt an explosion inside our home. That was when I knew what I had done. I ran." Her face was pale and haunted. "The door of my father's sanctum was blown outward. My brothers lay in the hall beyond. All dead. All dead. And all my fault." Tears started running down her cheeks. She dabbed at them with the edge of a yellow sleeve. "Nokias and the others came to the stronghold. They said I had made my first coup. I had achieved the office of magess. I didn't want it. I had force-killed my family."

"But you didn't do it on purpose," Keff said, feeling in his tunic pocket for a handkerchief and extending it to her. "It was an accident."

"I could have let my father succeed. Then he and my brothers might be alive," Plennafrey said. "I should have known." A tear snaked down her cheek. Angrily, she wiped her eye and sat with the cloth crumpled in her fists.

"You fought for your life. That's normal. You shouldn't have to sacrifice yourself for anyone's power grab."

"But he was my father! I respected his will. Is it not like that where you live?" the girl asked.

"No," Keff said with more emphasis than he intended. "No father would do what he did. To us, life is sacred."

Plenna stared at her hands. She gave a little sigh. "I wish I lived there, too."

"I hate this world more than ever," said Carialle, for whom special intervention to save her life had begun before she was born. "Corruption is rewarded, child murder not even blinked at; power is the most important thing, over family, life, sanity. Let's have them put an interdict on this place when we get out of here. They haven't got space travel, so we don't have to worry about them showing up in the Central Worlds for millennia more to come."

"We have to get out of here first," Keff reminded her. "Perhaps we can help them to straighten things out before we go."

Carialle sighed. "Of course you're right, knight in shining armor. Whatever we can do, we should. I simply cannot countenance what this poor girl went through."

Keff turned to Plennafrey. She stared down toward the floor, not seeing it, but thinking of her past.

"Please, Plennafrey," Keff said, imbuing the Ozran phrases with as much persuasive charm in his voice as possible, "I'm new to your world. I want to learn about you and your people. You interest me very much. What is this?" he asked, picking up the nearest unidentifiable gewgaw.

Distracted, she looked up. Keff held the little cylinder up to her, and she smiled.

"It is a music," she said. At her direction, he shook the box back and forth, then set it down. The sides popped open, and a sweet, tinny melody poured out. "I have had that since, oh, since a child."

"Is it old?"

"Oh, a few generations. My father's father's father," she giggled, counting on her fingers, "made it for his wife."

"It's beautiful. And what's this?" Keff got up and reached for a short coiled string and the pendant bauble at the end of it. The opaline substance glittered blue, green, and red in the lamplight.

"It's a plaything," Plennafrey said, with a hint of her natural vitality returning to her face. "It takes some skill to use. No magic. I am very good with it. My brothers were never as skilled."

"Show me," Keff said. She stood up beside him and wound the string around the central core of the pendant. Inserting her forefinger through the loop at the strings end, she cradled the toy, then threw it. It spooled out and smacked back into her palm. She flicked it again, but this time moved her hand so the pendant ricocheted past her head, dove between their knees, then shot back into her hand.

"A yo-yo!" Keff said, delighted

"You have such things?" Plennafrey asked. She smiled up into his face.

Keff grinned. "Oh, yes. This is far nicer than the ones I used to play with. In fact, it's a work of art. Can I try?"

"All right." Plenna peeled the string off her finger and extended the toy to him. He accepted it, his hands cradling hers for just a moment. He did a few straight passes with the yo-yo, then made it fly around the world, then swung it in a trapeze.

"You are very good too," Plenna said, happily. "Will you show me how you did the last thing?"

"It would be my pleasure," Keff told her. He returned the toy to her hands. As his palms touched hers, he felt an almost electric shock. He became aware they were standing very close, their thighs brushing slightly so that he could feel the heat of her body. Her breath caught, then came more quickly. His respiration sped up to match hers. To his delight and astonishment he knew that she was as attracted to him as he was to her. The yo-yo slipped unnoticed to the hassock as he clasped her hands tightly. She smiled at him, her eyes full of trust and wonder. Before she said a word, his arms slid along hers, encompassing her narrow waist, hands flat against her back. She didn't protest, but pressed her slim body to his. He felt her quiver slightly, then she nestled urgently against him, settling her head on his shoulder. Her skin was warm through the thin stuff of her dress, and her flowery, spicy scent tantalized him.

She felt so natural in his arms he had to remind himself that she was an alien being, then he discarded inhibition. If things didn't work out physically, well, they were sharing the intense closeness of people who had been in danger together, a kind of comfort in itself. Yet he let himself believe that all would be as he desired it. There were too many other outward similarities to humanity in Plennafrey's people. With luck, they made love the same way.

Plennafrey had none of the seductive art of the gauze-draped Potria, but he found her genuine responsiveness much more desirable. While her elders were tormenting Keff, it had probably not occurred to her to think of him as anything but an abused "toy."

She was merely being kind to an outsider, or less charitably, to a dumb animal that couldn't defend itself. Now that they were together, intriguing chemistry bubbled up between them. He watched the long fringe of her lashes lift to reveal her large, dark eyes. He admired the long throat and the way her pulse jumped in the small shadow at the hollow inside her collarbone. The corners of her mouth lifted while she, too, stopped to study him.

"What are you thinking?" he asked, looking up at her.

"I am thinking that you are handsome," she said.

"Well, you are very beautiful, lady magess," he whispered, bending down to kiss the curve of her shoulder.

"I hate being a magess," Plennafrey said in a voice that was nearly a sob.

"But I am glad you are a magess," Keff said. "If you hadn't been, I would never have met you, and you are the nicest thing I have seen since I came to Ozran."

He put his hand under her chin, stroked her soft throat with a gentle finger like petting a cat. Almost felinely, Plenna closed her eyes to long slits and let her head drift back, looking like she wanted to purr. She raised her face to his, and her hand crept up the back of his neck to pull his head down to her level. Keff tasted cherries and cinnamon on her lips, delighted to lose himself in her perfume. He deepened the kiss, and Plenna responded with ardor. He bent down to kiss the curve of her shoulder, felt her brush her cheek against his ear.

Suddenly she let go of him and stepped back, looking up at him half-expectantly, half-afraid. Keff gathered up her hands and kissed them, pulled Plenna close, and brushed her lips with soft, feather-light caresses until they opened. She sighed.

"Sight and sound off, please, Cari," Keff whispered Plennafrey nestled her head into the curve of his shoulder, and he kissed her.

* * *

Carialle considered for a moment before shutting off the sensory monitors. While in a potentially hostile environment, especially with hostiles in pursuit, it was against Courier Service rules to break off all communications.

The Ozran female let out a wordless cry, and Keff matched it with a heartfelt moan. Carialle weighed the requirement with Keff's right to privacy and decided a limited signal wasn't unreasonable. Such a request was permissible as long as the brain maintained some kind of contact with her brawn partner.

"As you wish, my knight errant," she said, hastily turning off the eye and mouth implants. She monitored transmission of his cardial and pulmonary receivers instead. They were getting a strenuous workout.

* * *

With her brawn otherwise occupied, Carialle turned her attention to the outside of Ozran. Most of the power and radio signals were still clustered on and inside Chaumel's peak. Each magiman and magiwoman proved to have a slightly different radio frequency which she or he used for communication, so Carialle could distinguish them. The eight remaining hunters who had pursued Keff and his girlfriend down the subterranean passages fanned out again and again across the planetary surface, and regrouped. The search was proving futile. Carialle mentally sent them a raspberry.

"Bad luck, you brutes," she said, merrily.

On the plain, the eye-globes came out of nowhere and circled around and around her. Carialle peered at each one closely, and recorded its burblings to the others through IT. Keff was building up a pretty good Ozran vocabulary and grammar, so she could understand the messages of frustration and fury that they broadcast to one another.

Some time later, Keff's heartbeat slowed down to its resting rate. His brain waves showed he had drifted off to sleep. Carialle occupied herself in the hours before dawn by doing maintenance on her computer systems and keeping an eye on the hunters who had to be wearing themselves out by now.

Carialle gave Keff a decent interval to wipe out sleep toxins, and then switched on again. Her video monitors beside his eyes offered her a most romantic tableau.

On the small bed against the bower wall, the young magiwoman was cuddled up against Keff's body. They were both naked, and his dark-haired, muscular arm was thrown protectively over her narrow, pale waist. Their ankles overlapped and then he started running a toe up and down her calf. Carialle took the opportunity to scan Keff's companion and found her readings of great interest.

Keff snorted softly, the sound he always made when he was on the edge of wakefulness.

"Ahem!" Carialle said, just loudly enough to alert, but not loud enough to startle Keff. "Are you certain this is what Central Worlds means by first contact?"

Keff gave a deep and throaty chuckle. "Ah, but it was first contact, my lady," he said, allowing her to infer the double or triple entendre.

"A gentleman never kisses and tells, you muscled ape," Carialle chided him. He laughed softly. The girl stirred slightly in her sleep, and her hand settled upon the hair on his chest. She smiled gently, dreaming. "Keff, I have something I need to tell you about Plennafrey, in fact about all the Ozrans: they're human."

"Very similar, but they're humanity's cousins," Keff corrected her. "And wait until I show the tapes to Xeno. Not of this, of course. They'll go wild."

"She is human, Keff. She must be the descendant of some lost colony or military ship that landed here eons ago. Her reactions, both emotional and bodily, let alone blood pressure, structure, systems—she was close enough to your contact implants for me to make sure. And I am sure. We have met the Ozrans, and they is us."

"Genetic scan?" Keff was disappointed. Carialle could tell he was still hoping, but he was a good enough exobiologist to realize he knew it himself.

"Bring me a lock of her hair, and I'll prove it."

"Oh, well," he said, gathering Plennafrey closer and tucking her head into his shoulder. "I can still rejoice in having found a mutation of humanity that has such powerful TK abilities."

Carialle sighed. Bless his stubbornness, she thought.

"It's not TK. It's sophisticated tool-using. Take away her toys and see if she can do any of her magic tricks."

Keff reached over the edge of the small bed and picked up the heavy belt by its buckle. He weighed it in his hand, then let it slip on his palm so his fingers were pointing toward the five depressions. "Does that mean I can use these things, too?"

"I should say so."

The links of the belt clanked softly together. The slight noise was enough to wake the young magiwoman in alarm. She sat up, her large eyes scanning the chamber.

"Who is here?" she asked. Keff held out her belt to her and she snatched it protectively.

"Only me," Keff said. "I'm sorry. I wanted to see how it worked. I didn't mean to wake you up."

Plenna looked apologetic for having overreacted to simple curiosity, and offered the belt to him with both hands and a warning. "We mustn't use it here. It is the reason that my bower is secure. We are just on the very edge of the ley lines, so my belt buckle and sash resonate too slightly to be noticed by any other mage." She swept a hand around "Everything in this room was brought here by hand. Or fashioned by hand from new materials, using no power."

"That's in the best magical tradition," Keff noted approvingly. "That means there's no 'vibes' left over from previous users. In this case, tracers or finding spells."

"Or circuits," Carialle said. "How does their magic work?"

Her question went unanswered. Before Keff could relay it to Plenna, he found himself gawking up toward the ceiling. As neatly as a conjurer pulling handkerchiefs out of his sleeve, the air disgorged Chaumel's flying chair, followed by Potria's, then Asedow's. Chaumel swooped low over the bed. The silver mage glared at them through bloodshot eyes.

"What a pretty place," he said, showing all his teeth in a mirthless grin. "I'll want to investigate it later on." He eyed Plennafrey's slender nakedness with an arrogant possessiveness. "Possibly with your . . . close assistance, my lady. You've been having a nice time while we've looked everywhere for you!"

Keff and Plennafrey scrambled for their clothes. One by one, the other hunters appeared, crowding the low bubble of stone.

"Ah, the chase becomes interesting again," Potria said. She didn't look her best. The chiffon of her gown drooped limply like peach-colored lettuce, and her eye makeup had smeared from lines to bruises. "I was getting so bored running after shadows."

"Yes, the prey emerges once again," Chaumel said. "But this time the predators are ready."

Plenna glared at Chaumel as she threw her primrose dress over her head.

"We should never have traveled in here by chair," she snarled. Keff stepped into his trousers and yanked on his right boot.

"That is correct," Chaumel said, easily, sitting back with his abnormally long fingers tented on his belly. "It took us some time to find the vein by which the heart of Ozran fed your power, but we have you at last. We will pass judgment on you later, young magess, but at this moment, we wish our prize returned to us."

The two stood transfixed as Nokias, Ferngal, and Omri slid their chairs into line beside their companion.

"Your disobedience will have to be paid for," Nokias said sternly to Plenna.

The young woman bowed her head, clasping her belt and sash in her hands. "I apologize for my disrespect, High Mage," she said, contritely. Keff was shocked by her sudden descent into submissiveness.

Nokias smiled, making Keff want to ram the mage's teeth down his skinny throat. "My child, you were rash. I can forgive."

The golden chair angled slightly, making to set down in the clear space between Plenna's small bed and her table. With lightning reflexes, Plennafrey grabbed Keff's hand, jumped over the lower limb of the chair, and dashed for her own chair. Clutching his armload of clothes and one boot, Keff had a split second to brace himself as Plenna launched the blue-green chariot into the gap left by Nokias and zoomed out into one of the tunnels that led out of the bubble.

Keff threw his legs around the edges of Plennafrey's chariot to brace himself while he shrugged into his tunic. The strap of the IT box was clamped tightly in his teeth. He disengaged it, dragged it out from under his shirt, and put it around his neck where it belonged. His boot would have to wait.

"Well done, my lady," he shouted. His voice echoed off the walls of the small passage that wound, widened, and narrowed about them.

"How dare they invade my sanctum!" Plennafrey fumed. Instead of being frightened by the appearance of the other mages, she was furious. "It goes beyond discourtesy. It is—like invading my mind! How dare they? Oh, I feel so stupid for teleporting in. I should never have done that."

"I'm responsible again, Plenna," Keff said contritely. He hung on as she negotiated a sharp turn. He pulled his legs up just in time. The edge of the chair almost nipped a stone outcropping. Plennafrey's hand settled softly on his shoulder, and he reached up to squeeze it. "You were saving my life."

"Oh, I do not blame you, Keff," she said. "If only I had been thinking clearly. It is all my fault. You couldn't know what I should have kept in mind, what I have been trained in all my life!" Her hand tightened in his, and he let it go. "It is just that now I don't know where we can go."

The posse was once again in pursuit. Keff heard shouting and bone-chilling scrapes as the hunters organized themselves a single-file line and attempted to follow. This tunnel was narrower than the ones underneath Chaumel's castle. A fallen stalactite aimed a toothlike pike at them, which Plenna dodged with difficulty. She scraped a few shards of wood off the side of her vehicle on the opposite wall. Keff curled his legs up under his chin away from the edge and prayed he wouldn't bounce off.

"Usually I enter on foot," Plenna said apologetically. "A chair was never meant to pass this way."

Keff was sure that Chaumel and the others were figuring that out now. The swearing and crashing sounds were getting louder and more emphatic. If Plenna wasn't such a good pilot, they'd be coming to grief on the rocks, too.

"Can't we teleport out of here?" Keff asked.

"We can't teleport out of a place," Plenna said, staring ahead of them. "Only in. Almost there. Hold on."

Keff, gripping the legs of her chair, got brief impressions of a series of vast caverns and corkscrewing passages as they looped and flitted through a passage that wound in an ever-widening spiral without the walls ever spreading farther apart. To Keff's relief, they emerged into the open air. They were over a steep-sided, narrow, dry riverbed bounded by dun-colored brush and scrub trees. He had a mere glimpse of the partly-concealed stone niche where Plenna almost certainly landed her chair when here by herself, then they were out over the ravine heading into the sunrise. Keff's stomach turned over when he realized how high up they were. He chided himself for a practical coward; he wasn't afraid of heights in vacuum, but where gravity ruled, he was acrophobic.

He turned at the sound of a shout. Through a lucky fluke, Chaumel and Asedow were almost immediately behind them. The others were probably still trying to get out of Plenna's labyrinth, or had crashed into the stone walls. As soon as he was clear, Asedow raised his mace. Red fire lanced out at them. Plenna, apparently intuiting where Asedow would strike, dodged up and down, slewing sideways to let the beams pass. The dry brush of the deep river vale smoldered and caught fire.

Chaumel was more subtle. Keff felt something creep into his mind and take hold. He suddenly thought he was being carried in the jaws of a dragon. Fiery breath crept along his back and into his hair, growing hotter. The fierce, white teeth were about to bite down on him, severing his legs. He groaned, clenching his jaws, as he fought the illusion's hold on his mind. The image vanished in the sweet breeze Keff had come to associate with Plenna, but it was followed immediately by another horrible illusion. She batted it away at once without losing her concentration on the battle. Chaumel was ready with the next sally.

"Don't want them taking my mind!" Keff ground out, battling images of clutching octopi with needle-sharp teeth set in a ring.

"Concentrate, Keff," Carialle said "Those devious bastards can't find a crack if you keep your focus small. Think of an equation. Six to the eighth power is . . . ?"

"Times six is thirty six, times six is two hundred sixteen, times six is . . ." Keff recited.

Plennafrey started forming small balls of gray nothingness between her hands. Her chair wheeled on its own axis, bringing her face-to-face with her pursuers. They peeled off to the sides like expert dog-fighters, but not before she had flung her spells at them. Explosions echoed down the valley. Ferngal's chair tipped over backward, sending him plummeting into the ravine. Keff heard his cry before the magiman vanished in midair. The black chair vanished, too. Nokias zoomed in toward them, his hand laid across his spell-casting ring. Plenna threw up a wall of protection just in time to shield them from the scarlet lightning.

"Divided by fourteen is . . . ? Come on!" Carialle said. "To the nearest integer."

One by one, the last three mages appeared out of the cave mouth and joined in the aerial battle. Keff couldn't watch Plenna weaving spells anymore because the webs made him think of giant spiders, which the illusion-casters made creep toward him, threatening to eat him. He drove them away with numbers.

"How long is a ninety-five kilohertz radio wave?" Carialle pressed him. "Keff, late-breaking headline: a couple hundred chariots just left Chaumel's residence. They're all coming for you. Teleporting . . . now!"

"We're too vulnerable," Keff shouted hoarsely. "If they get through to my mind the way they did in the banquet hall, I'll end up their plaything. If they don't shoot us first!"

All six of the remaining mages positioned themselves around Plenna like the sides of a cube, converging on her, throwing their diverse spells and illusions. Hands flying, Plennafrey warded herself and Keff in a translucent globe of energy. Carialle's voice became suffused with static.

Suddenly, the chair under him dropped. Spells and lightning bolts, along with the shield-globe, vanished. The sides of the ravine shot upward like the stone walls in his nightmare.

"What happened?" he shouted. All the other mages were falling, too, their faces frozen with fear. Before his question was completely out of his mouth, the terrifying fall ceased. Keff felt his hair crackle with static electricity, and bright sparks seemed to fly around all the mages' chariots. Unhesitatingly, Plenna angled her chair upward, flying out of the canyon. She crested the ridge and ran flat out toward the east. "What was that?"

"Didn't you pay the power bill?" Carialle asked, in his ear. "That was a full blackout, a tremendous drop along the electromagnetic lines. I think you overloaded the circuits of whatever's powering them, but they're back on line. Fortunately, it got everybody at once, not just you."

"Are you all right?" Keff asked.

The yearning and frustration in the brain's voice was unmistakable. "For that one moment I was free, but unfortunately I was too slow to take off! All the power on the planet is draining toward you—even the plants seem to be losing their color. Everyone is out in full force after you. Keff, get her to bring you here!"

Like a hive of angry hornets, swarms of chariots poured over the ridge in pursuit. Scarlet bolts whipped past Keff's ear. He grabbed Plennafrey's knee, and turned his face up to her.

"Plenna, if you can't teleport out, we have to teleport into somewhere—my ship!" She nodded curtly.

Over his head, the girl's arms wove and wove. Keff watched the mass of chairs fill the air behind them. He prayed they wouldn't suffer another magical blackout.

"Great Mother Planet of Paradise, aid me!" Plenna threw up her arms, and the whole scene, angry magicians and all, vanished.


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