They were in a hurry, and even though Aïn the Guide had the ability to stretch time enough for a second to feel like several minutes, he didn't think he could stop to try to find answers to the questions that were swarming through his head. Right now the only thing he could do was to grab hold of the tiny opportunity he had been given to rescue, not only the young girl, but some of the others, too. Maybe even all of them...
First he had to persuade the injured boy, who was already out on his feet, to give him permission to enter his mind. No Guide was permitted to do that without specific permission, not even in the direst emergency.
Julien, he thought, I am Aïn Zadilak Bilalil ez a Katak, Master Guide. I need to enter your mind in order to use your Gifts and your Force to help the people for whose safety I am responsible. Please can I do that?
Julien didn't have the remotest idea of what the Guide actually wanted to do, but he was willing to do anything he could to help. But then he realised to his absolute horror that he was no longer alone in his own head. He hadn't imagined for a moment that Aïn would be able to take such complete control, nor that he would be able to access all his memories – ALL of them – even the ones that he normally kept hidden even from himself, as far as he could, because of the shame and embarrassment they caused him. It was a million times worse than discovering that someone has invaded your bedroom and read your secret diary, because he would never have written down some of these things. But now absolutely everything – all his most secret thoughts, all the things he had never told another living soul, everything he had tried to bury for ever in some dark sub-basement of his mind – every last one of them was spread out beneath the gaze of the Guide. Julien felt he was going to die of shame, and the sooner, the better.
Don't worry, I'm only going to look at what I absolutely need to see. True, you can't hide anything, but I won't look at anything that you'd think embarrassing. There's nothing you can do, but I swear I won't look at anything you would prefer me not to see.
This time it wasn't like hearing someone else's thought in his head: this time it was more as if he'd thought it himself. And he knew straight away that it was the truth: Aïn was his friend and would never want to cause him any embarrassment. Aïn wanted only what was best for him, and if he had taken control of his body it was only for a moment – just for long enough to do what had to be done.
Aïn had almost lost the boy: he'd never before entered a mind so completely unprepared to receive him. Until now the only times he had actually achieved a full mental fusion had been with another Master Guide. But this child clearly had no idea what he was, nor did he have the remotest idea of how to use the Gifts present within him – Gifts which were so much more powerful than anything Aïn had encountered previously. So he took a few precious seconds to try to calm the strange boy down, to soothe him with feelings of love and only then, once the boy was sufficiently relaxed, did Aïn really set to work.
Relying on the vast power hidden at the heart of the boy's consciousness he created an invisible bubble which spread out to include every member of their party, adapting itself to fit their movements and utterly excluding anything which was not part of them – especially anything even remotely connected to the ghorr and its allies. For a non-existent fraction of time the seven members of the group existed solely through the combined abilities of a Master Guide and a child who had no idea what was going on.
Then they were in the Outside, and only Aïn and Julien could see exactly what now surrounded them. The others simply had no sense that could have perceived it, just as someone born blind is unable to see a landscape. But Julien was able to see. The ghorr had been scary enough, but the sight of what might, for want of a better term, be called the other side of the universe would have destroyed his mind if Aïn had not somehow closed his eyes and thus protected him from this new sense that he was using for the very first time.
Aïn had been trained, not only to withstand the chaos, but also to navigate his way through it. The klirks existed in order to make the process simpler, and indeed using the paths they marked out was no more difficult than following a bobsleigh course. On the other hand, travelling without using klirks was a great deal more difficult, because it meant that you had to find your own way through the chaos unaided. The difference was akin to that between travelling by train and hacking your way with a machete through the Amazonian rainforest.
The crossing would take no time at all - at least, not as time is measured in the normal world. But if the Guide were to die in mid-journey while trying to find the way, everyone who was with him would simply cease to exist, and not even a button would be left behind.
Of course, Aïn had no intention of dying. All the same, he was starting to wonder if he had bitten off more than he could chew by trying to rescue everyone. Even using Julien's massive resources, which were far above his own, he felt as if he was swimming in treacle and wearing himself out without making any headway. If he had been accompanied by another Master Guide he would have shared the load – but then even if another Guide had been with him, moving this number of people in these circumstances would still have been impossible.
Ideally he would have preferred to keep the whole thing secret and land discreetly on one of the hidden klirks inside the Tower, but he no longer had the strength to go looking for those hidden portals. Instead he took the simple route and went direct to the Great Gate.
When people travel with a Guide they normally arrive in complete silence: one moment they are not there, and the next they are, and that's all there is. But what happened on the roof of Bakhtar Tower was a lot more dramatic.
First, the Tower itself shut down: the amber light flowing on its metal sides suddenly went out. Next came a gigantic BANG!! which would have made the noise made by a hedge-hopping supersonic fighter plane sound like a bubble-gum bubble popping. At the same time the building was struck by over a score of thunderbolts which melted three metal statues into piles of slag and cracked fifteen metres of rooftop. Two flybubbles that were parked on the roof, fortunately unattended, were vaporised.
There were eighty guards posted at various points around the roof of the building. All of them suffered hearing loss that lasted two weeks, eighteen suffered minor burns and three passed out, officially due to air pressure but actually, according to gossip, due to sheer terror. Some lost control of their bladders, and the gossip further suggested that some losses of control were rather more... well, whiffy.
Other than the immediate witnesses, hardly anyone ever found out what had caused the huge explosion on top of the Tower, although wild rumours continued to run for several years after the event. Within the closed world of the Master Guides, Aïn became known from that moment on as 'Aïn the Deafening', and a lot of people would wonder what such a great Master had done to be given such an unflattering nickname.
The travellers themselves, with the exception of Izkya, hadn't been expecting to travel at all: they were caught in mid-fight and ended up launching their final attacks against the ghorr into thin air instead. Suddenly the stink and the darkness of the park had been replaced with the utter confusion of the top of the Tower, with the glowing metal of the melted statues, the dazed guards and the smouldering debris of the flybubble gondolas, the whole scene still reverberating with the deafening echo of their arrival.
All the same, it only took the First Lord a few seconds to size up the situation and to realise that his guards couldn't hear him. He used signs to order them to go for help and then turned back to his companions.
The only one who was actually bleeding was Nardouk. Dalko told Aldegard that he was uninjured, and the ghorr hadn't got close enough to anyone else to hurt them. But Julien and Aïn were motionless on the ground: the boy was unconscious but rigid, and still clinging to Aïn's fur in a death-grip, and Aïn was scarcely breathing, his fur standing up on end like a scrubbing-brush.
Finally they got everyone down into the First Lord's apartment, where the First Lady was waiting with no less than three Health Masters, who got straight to work on their patients. The slashes on Nardouk's chest already looked infected and were starting to blacken, and it was essential that they be cleaned out and a healing balm applied as quickly as possible. If that could be done there was a good chance that the wounds would close up in three or four days.
It was harder to separate Julien from Aïn – every time an attempt was made Julien clung on even more desperately and uttered heart-wrenching cries. Eventually they managed to make him open his eyes and relax a little, and after that the Health Masters were able to start work on his ribs.
While all this was going on Izkya had just hurried to her mother: the First Lady Delia had been doing her best to look calm and composed, but when Izkya threw herself into her arms she couldn't help crying with relief.
Niil felt a bit left out. True, he was neither wounded nor unconscious, and he supposed he should be grateful that he had escaped unscathed, but he wouldn't have minded if someone had wanted to fuss over him a bit. He hadn't even been offered a cup of warm södja.
He shrugged. If he wasn't needed – and he certainly didn't seem to be – then he thought he'd leave all these important people to get on with it without him. He spotted a comfortable-looking couch and lay down on it, expecting to be able to fall asleep almost immediately. But he had no sooner closed his eyes than a hand was shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes again and found himself looking at a guard who was wearing the grey livery of the Lower Gate.
“Noble Lord,” said the guard, “the First Lord asks if you would be kind enough to go down to see your First-Greeted and let him know that you got back safely. The First Lord says he would do it himself, but he really needs to stay and make sure that order is restored. If you'd like to come with me, I'll show you where he is.”
He was given a blue tunic to replace the hatik he had lent to Ambar: even though the circumstances were unusual, it would hardly be right and proper for a Noble Son to to wander through the corridors in a state of undress.
Niil got up at once, all trace of grumpiness gone: the First Lord had actually asked him to do him the favour of taking care of Ambar! He realised that, far from discounting him, they were actually turning to him as one of the few people who was still fit enough to actually do something useful.
He followed the guard as far as a descent shaft, where they jumped into an empty nacelle that carried them smoothly down to the ground floor of the building. After what seemed like half a mile of corridors they reached the guards' quarters, and there his guide left him and went back to his duty post.
There was a small light burning beside the bed, and by its light Niil could see Askil, who was sitting beside a basic army-type bed on which Ambar was sleeping under a thin powder-blue sheet. As Niil approached, Askil stood up and gave him a questioning look.
“I'm Niil, of the Ksantiris,” Niil told him. “I've come to see my First-Greeted and to give him some good news.”
He shook Ambar's shoulder gently. The boy woke up straight away, blinking in the light from the lamp beside the bed. It took him a few seconds to remember where he was and to recognise Niil.
“Noble Lord!” he exclaimed with a big smile. “Lord Nardouk managed to rescue you, then! I wanted to go with him, but he wouldn't let me.”
“I know. He told me. Anyway, if you're not too tired I'll take you to see Izkya and Julien, too.”
Ambar scarcely hesitated: he threw back the sheet, revealing his nicely-bronzed young body, which he rapidly covered with his precious Ksantiri abba.
Askil led them to the ascent shaft. Ambar had never used a shaft before and gripped Niil's hand when the nacelle started to carry them back up towards the top of the Tower. Normally such behaviour would be frowned upon, but neither of them worried about it at all – in fact both enjoyed the unlikely intimacy of it.
When they reached the First Lord's apartments they found that a measure of calm had been restored. The First Lord wasn't there, but the First Lady came to greet Ambar as soon as he stepped into the room.
“I see you've found your benefactor, Ambar,” she said. “My daughter isn't here to thank you in person, but I must insist on doing so myself on her behalf.”
And then, unbelievably, this Lady, who was so beautiful that Ambar could only compare her with the cherished memory of his own mother, came to him and brushed his forehead with a kiss, at the same time stroking his cheek, which still bore the faint marks left by folds in the pillow, with her scented hand.
“Ambar,” she said, “We'll meet again soon, but I'm happy to be the first to thank you for your part in the rescue of my beloved daughter.”
She turned to Niil.
“I expect you'll want to look after your own people,” she said. “The Health Masters have finished with the stranger you brought with you and he's waiting for you in a kang where you can stay with him and our brave young friend here.”
Ambar blushed at the praise, and Niil thanked the Lady politely and then allowed a Lady-in-waiting to lead the two of them to the kang that had been prepared for them.