Chapter 10

In the dark

It was the darkest hour of the night. Lord Nardouk had argued himself blue in the face as he tried to persuade the First Lord to stay in the Tower, but the First Lord wasn't exactly a kid who could be told it was past his bedtime: instead he was determined to travel with the rescue party. He had, however, expressed a wish to see the brave messenger who had risked his life to bring them the news, and he had hoped to speak to him personally, but when he reached the small room he found that Ambar was fast asleep, with Askil keeping a watchful eye on him.

The First Lord and Nardouk set out with only three companions. They weren't much to look at: a grey-haired woman whose youth was only a distant memory; a slim man of medium height with a serious expression and a pigtail hanging over his right shoulder; and a creature that looked like a blue dog.

The woman was a Sentry. She could identify threats that most people would miss, and – and this was the main reason for her inclusion in the party – she was able to detect the presence of a ghorr long before it could see or hear her.

The man was a Silent Warrior. The members of this order chose for themselves whom they wanted to serve, most usually in the capacity of bodyguard, but also sometimes as a tutor for the children of a Noble Family. They were also some of the very tiny number of humans who could stand up against a ghorr, at least for a brief period.

As for the 'blue dog', it wasn't really a dog – in fact, strictly speaking it wasn't an animal at all. It was a Guide, one of the most sensitive and intelligent creatures of the universe: not only could it use the klirk network to travel and carry passengers, but it could also, should the need arise, travel without using the klirks at all.

The three of them – Markya the Sentry, Dalko the Warrior and Aïn the Guide – were worth more than any band of soldiers that the First Lord might have been able to get together for this expedition. They left Bakhtar Tower using one of the secret klirks hidden inside, and Aïn took them to the garden of a mansion not far from the merchant Batürlik's yard.

When a klirk is used it disrupts the structure of the universe itself, rather in the way that a moving boat sends ripples over the surface of a lake, and ghorrs are able to detect this disturbance. Aïn had done his best to keep these ripples to a minimum, and he was not just any Guide – he was a Master among Masters. The only one who had ever reached his level had been Yol the Intrepid, but Yol had disappeared years ago during the Great Quest. Nonetheless, despite Aïn's expertise, it was impossible not to leave some small trace of their passing, and he was sure that it would have alerted the ghorrs that were no doubt hunting for the Noble Daughter and her companions at that moment.

Their trip brought them to the centre of a small grove of ornamental trees. As soon as they arrived Dalko slipped out of the grove to reconnoitre – it was, after all, quite possible that their enemy might know about this secret place. Meanwhile, Markya closed her eyes and started scanning for the subtle signs that would betray the presence of a ghorr. It only took her a few seconds to recognise the position.

There are eighteen ghorrs,” she told them, in a youthful voice that offered a sharp contrast with her wrinkled appearance. “I've never seen so many at one time. I think there are some other things as well, but they're being hidden by someone who knows what he's doing – I'd guess it's a Master Sorcerer working with a Dre Tchenn. I don't know why they're after the Noble Daughter, but they've seriously pulled all the stops out to get her.”

The First Lord said nothing – he was afraid that if he did his voice would betray his anguish. Instead, Nardouk spoke.

Markya,” he asked, “can you locate the ghorrs?”

Not accurately,” she replied. “I told you, someone is hiding them. But I'm fairly sure that the closest are only a block or two away.”

At that moment Dalko came back.

It's clear,” he reported. “There's nobody in the garden and the street is empty too.”

Nobody had actually heard him arrive: he moved like a ghost.

The garden door opened directly onto the street, and so, with no further delay, they ran, moving from shadow to shadow, flitting through the streets towards the river. Dalko scouted ahead of them, approaching each junction with caution with every sense on alert.

Soon they reached Fruit Quay. They couldn't make out very much in the dark, but the quay appeared to be deserted.

We need to be very careful,” Markya warned them. “I can sense ghorrs in almost every direction, but I can't tell how far away they are.”

The First Lord thought for a moment. “I think they'll wait until we've found the children and then attack on the way back,” he said. “After all, they haven't found the children yet, so probably they're waiting for us to do that for them.”

I'll go and look for the children,” said Dalko.

No, wait,” said Nardouk. “They don't know you – you'll scare them. I'd better go.”

Fair enough, but I'm coming with you,” said Dalko.

The two men made their way towards the storage area that Ambar had described for them. There were packing cases and bundles piled in long rows, containing textiles, dried food, spices, cereals and other things, all of which combined to create a stink that was to a sensitive nose what the racket of an orchestra of tone-deaf gorillas would sound like to a musician's ear.

Ambar had done his best to describe his friends' hiding place accurately, but it's really difficult to pinpoint a place on a quay that looked exactly like every other part of it – rows and rows of bundles, all looking the same. Nonetheless, Dalko had undergone many years' training as a Silent Warrior, and as a result his senses were a formidable detection system. And so, even in the near-total dark, he finally found the footsteps of a barefoot child in the grime of the quay. In order to be sure he lay down and sniffed at one of the footmarks, and discovered – masked as it was under the thousands of foul smells on the quay – the characteristic scent of the small boy he had seen only very briefly, sleeping under Askil's watchful eye, just before setting out on this expedition. He stood up and started running, followed by Nardouk, who was doing his best – though failing – to be as silent as the noiseless warrior ahead of him.

Suddenly Dalko froze.

That's where they are,” he whispered, pointing at an even darker recess between two piles of bundles.

Nardouk walked the fifty steps to the place Dalko had indicated, stopping just short of it and coughing gently.

Lord Nardouk?” Izkya's voice betrayed both her fear and her tiredness.

Yes, Noble Daughter, it's me. The First Lord is just along the quay. We've come to get you.”

As he got closer he could make out the girl's pale face, and then, after some muffled noises, the bare chest of a young boy who was doing his best to look fit and ready.

Noble Lord,” asked Niil, “what happened to Ambar? Why isn't he with you?”

Don't worry,” Nardouk told him. “Your First-Greeted is safe – we left him asleep at the Tower. I wouldn't let him come with us.”

Groaning, Julien emerged from the hiding place, holding his chest.

Watch out, Noble Lord,” he said. “There are ghorrs at Batürlik's, and there might be others looking for us, too.”

I know,” said Nardouk, helping him to stay on his feet. “That's why we have to hurry. I'll carry you.”

But I can...”

Just keep quiet and let me do this, all right? We don't have time to argue.”

He swung Julien up onto his shoulders, making him utter a muffled cry.

I know I'm hurting you,” said Nardouk. “I'm sorry – just try not to make a sound.”

He started running, with Niil and Izkya at his heels and Dalko once more scouting ahead. When they reached the First Lord he didn't waste time hugging and kissing his daughter because he knew they weren't safe yet.

They all ran, following Aïn towards another klirk, one that was so secret that only he knew about it. Clearly they couldn't go back using the same one that they had used for the outward journey, because by now that one would certainly have been located.

Although Nardouk was doing his best to move smoothly every stride he took jarred Julien's ribs. It felt as if someone was sawing away at them with a rusty knife. The poor boy clenched his teeth and prayed that he could just pass out as quickly as possible.

Suddenly Markya the Sentry froze. She concentrated for a few seconds and then said, “There are two ghorrs about two hundred paces ahead of us.”

Immediately Aïn led them back and over to a street that ran off at right angle from the one they had been following. Nobody raised any objection: to confront even one ghorr was terribly risky, but to try to take on two would be nothing short of suicidal. Every now and again Markya made them stop so that she could check that they weren't running into another ambush, but it seemed that they were escaping the net.

They had been running for about five minutes when they heard the flapping of wings and shrill chirping sounds. Without slowing his pace Dalko told them, “We've been spotted. They're using blackwings, and that one is on its way to warn its master.”

They kept running, because there was nothing else they could do. After what seemed to be an endless time they reached a park and rushed along a maze of paths until they reached a group of ornamental bushes whose pale flowers could be seen despite the darkness. Aïn was just about to lead them into the bushes when they heard a deep growl, and at the same time the air was filled with the sickening and unmistakable stench of a ghorr.

With a horrible feeling of absolute despair Markya realised that she had been completely fooled: whoever her opponent was, he had deliberately given her the impression of being unable to completely hide the location of his ghorrs in order to lull her into a false sense of security. And now they were about to fall into the clutches of a ghorr so perfectly concealed that she had not had the remotest hint of its presence until this instant.

Dalko didn't waste time wondering how it had happened: in the blinking of an eye he had interposed himself between the enemy and the group he was guarding. His left hand now held a blade that glittered in the starlight, while his right hand was hooked into a claw, ready to rip into his enemy. At that moment he was beyond both the fear of death and the lust to triumph. He was once again prepared to dance the terrible life or death pas-de-deux, and this adversary was simply a way in which he could hone his skills to perfection.

And then all hell broke loose.


It's not easy to describe a ghorr, because they are not natural animals: instead they are the result of blasphemous experiments by generations of power-hungry sorcerers and scientists with no conscience. Nature could never have produced such a chimera single-handed. It has the spider's chitin-armoured body and four pairs of jointed legs ending in formidable claws. But it also has fangs resembling those of the most feared of the Tandil big cats, the laktir, strong enough to remove a man's head from his shoulders in a single bite. It has venomous barbs on its belly whose poison is instant death to an opponent who gets too close, and its sensory organs are as good as those of any other predator, second only to those of a Silent Warrior, and also to a lesser extent to the intuition of the Sentries and the foresight of the Guides.

All in all, a ghorr is an appalling killing machine that would be absolutely perfect, had its masters not, for their own protection, been forced to limit its intelligence and reduce it to a state of blind obedience coupled with boundless malevolence. A ghorr hates unreservedly anyone his master has not told it to spare or respect. This makes it both a terrible, efficient weapon and at the same time very difficult to wield effectively – which is why anyone found to be using a ghorr is deemed by Law to be outcast from the society of normal beings and is to be hunted down and destroyed wherever possible.

The massive, ox-sized abomination charged at Dalko as fast as its eight legs could move it. The man moved only at the last possible second: faster than the eye could have seen even in broad daylight he took two steps to the right and brought his blade down, slicing the last two segments off one of the monster's legs. That wasn't much of an injury for a ghorr, but it did fulfil its purpose of drawing the creature's rage away from the group in front of it and onto the mad creature that had been stupid enough to challenge it.

The First Lord took the opportunity to push his daughter towards Aïn.

Get her away from this, please,” he asked.

It took Izkya a few seconds to realise what was going on – she'd been listening to the growls of the ghorr as it faced up to Dalko. But when she realised what her father was suggesting she moved quickly away from Aïn.

No way!” she shouted. “I'm not going!”

The First Lord took her by the shoulders.

Izkya, you don't have a say in this,” he said. “Go back to your mother and wait for us.”

I'm not going without you, father. And you can't make me, either: the Guide can't take me unless I give my permission.”

This was true: except in the case of criminals sentenced to exile the Guides had no choice. They'd sworn an oath so sacred that any attempt to break it would have led automatically to a fate worse than death.

Izkya, I want you to go,” said the First Lord. “It might be the last thing I'll ever ask you to dogo now, before it's too late.”

Her father was the most powerful person in this world, and yet his voice had cracked as he spoke. And that was enough for Izkya. She nodded and turned towards the Guide. Right now she knew exactly what the big blue dog really was, but like everyone else she would forget what it had looked like once it had gone.

As she reached its side she found herself also standing next to Julien, whom Nardouk had just put down in order to be able to go and help Dalko in his doomed fight. Poor Julien, she thought: this really hasn't been much of a welcome to our world. Really he was the one the Guide should take first...


Suddenly there was movement. For the first time Dalko had been hit by his opponent, pushing him into Nardouk who in turn lost his balance and stumbled back, colliding with Julien. Julien was already having trouble staying on his feet, and as he was pushed he grabbed hold of the nearest thing he could find to try to retain his balance. That turned out to be the fur of the Guide. As he touched it he felt a sort of jolt run through him, and as he closed his hand instinctively on the silky fur he heard a voice in his head.

Hold on as tight as you can, and mind you don't let go! it said. And then: By the Powers – Who are You?!

Julien was by now so tired and confused that he barely paused to question this: he knew straight away that it was the Guide talking to him. He clung on even more tightly and thought as clearly as he could, My name is Julien, and I come from another world!

You've got Yol's mark on you. Is he the one who made you a Guide?

I'm not a Guide, and I've never heard of anyone called Yol.

This exchange went far faster than if they had actually had to use spoken words. Questions and answers were exchanged almost instantly.

I don't care what you believe, you've clearly received the Gift. You're a Guide, and an amazingly powerful one, too.


There's no time for questions or doubts now. I need your permission to use your Gift and your mind.

During the few seconds that this conversation had lasted Lord Nardouk had thrown himself into the battle and managed to land three blows with his sword before having his chest ripped open by the ghorr's claws – and that despite the fact that he was wearing a hatik made of the same nearly indestructible material that had protected Julien earlier in the evening. But his courage had given Dalko a chance to recover and re-enter the fray, and once again he was holding the monster at bay. The creature had lost some of its legs, but that didn't seem to have greatly reduced either its mobility or its aggressiveness, and now they could hear the growls of others as they rushed towards the spot.

First Lord Aldegard, having consigned his daughter to the care of the guide, now drew his own blade and prepared for death. On his left Markya the Sentry thought briefly of her teachers and her ancestors and pulled her own blade, the one she had inherited from her mother, from its scabbard. At least, she thought, I won't be leaving any orphan children behind me: never having married now seemed like the right choice.

For his part, Niil was hellishly frustrated: he'd received the training and knew how to fight, but he had no weapon, and bare hands were completely useless against a ghorr. He'd heard the First Lord asking the Guide to take his daughter away, and that was as it should be, he thought: at least the courage his colleagues were displaying wouldn't be wasted if Izkya escaped. That just left Julien, who was in any case in no condition to fight, and Niil decided that he'd take his stand next to him. There might be nothing practical he could do to help, but at least he could hold his hand until the end came...


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