Chapter 16 (Part 1 of 2)

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Maggie leaned back in the padded seat as the aircar roared out over snowfields. The cabin was pressurizing, and her ears popped. She took her eyes off the green gems of flaming springs, hoping Orick would escape.

If I get through this alive, she thought, I'll never go near another inn again. She twisted some hair around her finger, chewed the ends nervously.

The thin man glanced at her. "Your bear friend will be all right. My men just took out the last vanquisher. As one would suspect, the guests of the inn are checking out in record time."

The thin man appeared to be thirty-five years old, though appearances would mean nothing on this world. He did not wear a mantle or guide. He wore a work suit of nondescript brown. He was not particularly handsome. "How do you know that your men killed the last vanquisher?"

"Implants." He pointed to his ear. He sighed and leaned back. The aircar was piloting itself now. He glanced at Maggie. "I must say, I'm disappointed. I had been informed that a Tharrin was traveling between worlds, Semarritte reborn. And the man accompanying her fit the description of Semarritte's Lord Protector. Yet I risked my life and the lives of my doppelgangers for what, a bear and...?"

Maggie shrugged. There was something more in the question than mere curiosity-a demand. His face remained impassive as he waited for her answer. "My name is Maggie Flynn."

"My name is Primary Jagget," he offered, stroking his goatee. "So why are you on Wechaus, and where is Semarritte's clone?"

Maggie did not know if she trusted Jagget. Her first impulse was to lie. Yet she suspected that some of his men were searching for Orick, and in time Jagget might question the bear. She had to make the lie plausible, so she forged ahead.

"Everynne was her name," Maggie said. "She came to my home world of Tihrglas two weeks ago with her escort, an old man who didn't mention his name. They hired me and my bear to lead them through the woods to an ancient gate, but there were some vanquishers and dronon after them. The old man fell behind to slow the vanquishers, sent us up ahead to the gate. We were at the gate when we heard his death scream. Everynne gave me the key, showed me how to use it, then rushed back through a clearing to help the old man. Just then, the vanquishers came out the far side of the clearing and shot her. The bear and I saw that our only chance for escape was to jump through the gate. We've been traveling ever since, trying to find our way back home through the gates."

"What of your mantle?" Primary Jagget asked. "Surely you did not get that on Tihrglas."

"The woman-Everynne-had it in her pack. She handed me her pack before she got killed."

Primary Jagget studied her with dark eyes, his face lit only by the running lights of the aircar. He sighed deeply, closed his eyes. "So, Semarritte's clone is dead," he said. "What a loss. What a tremendous loss!"

"Was she a friend of yours?" Maggie asked.

Primary Jagget shook his head. "I've never actually seen her, but yes, she was a friend of mine."

He fell silent for a long moment. "What shall we do with you? The dronon have offered a reward for the woman who is traveling the Maze of Worlds."

"I've done nothing," Maggie said, realizing that she had a hole in her story. If Everynne was already dead, the dronon wouldn't still be searching for her. "Why should they want me?"

"Isn't it obvious? They want your key."

Maggie breathed a sigh of relief. "Of course." She looked out the window. There were no moons above this planet, only a ring of light, and that was partly in shadow. The aircar sped over a frozen ocean.

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