A long time ago Xarax had gone to sleep.
Now something had woken him up.
That something was the presence of an intruder.
Somebody had got past the Impassable Defence. Soon that Somebody was going to die, a victim of the Numberless Traps. This had never happened before... and now Xarax could feel that the intruder was not alone, either.
Xarax was hungry. Xarax had not eaten since long, long ago. Xarax didn't eat just anything: he could not. But he could fast, and he could wait for a very long time.
And Xarax was loyal. His heart never forgot. Never.
Xarax had had a friend, and that friend had gone away. Perhaps he was dead. Xarax had been left to his despair.
Xarax had not eaten since that terrible day. Only his friend could give him the food he needed. But Xarax still remained. One day he would die of starvation and then the waiting would end at last, and he would be powerless to prevent it. But at least he would not have betrayed his friend by taking his own life in order to end his torment.
Xarax would die as he had lived: true to one only.
Xarax was a Haptir from Kretzlal.
When they moved onto the next stone they were greeted, not by Askil's laughter, but by the sight of the most beautiful structure in all the Nine Worlds. A few hundred metres ahead of them stood the Emperor's Palace. It looked exactly like the pictures that Niil had seen in his father's library: tall, with slender towers ascending to dizzying heights, all linked by a network of shining crystal footbridges that reflected the sun in dazzling flashes of pure light.
“We've got to go back! Now!!” yelled Niil, who seemed to be on the verge of panic.
“Why?” asked Julien. “Let's go on a bit. Wouldn't you like to see the Palace from a bit nearer?”
“You don't know what you're talking about! There are traps everywhere! We shouldn't have come this far, and now we really mustn't try to get any further!”
Niil looked really scared, so Julien agreed without further argument.
“All right,” he said. “Let's go back, then.”
But it was easier said than done. They could see a few unconcerned passers-by walking along about thirty paces away, and they could also see Askil, who did look concerned – in fact he was obviously very worried indeed, because it was clear that, while they could see him, he couldn't see them. And, given that he had just lost the guests entrusted to him by the First Lord himself, the anguish on his face was completely understandable. But every time they tried to walk towards him they were blocked by an invisible force that became completely impassible in less than one metre.
“We'll never make it,” said Niil.
“Then let's try to reach the Palace,” suggested Julien. “The Emperor is sure to help the sons of the First Lord of the Ksantiris.”
“You're right, he is. But we won't get anywhere near the Palace. We'll be dead before we've gone fifty metres.”
“How do you know? You said yourself that nobody ever gets more than a few steps onto the Square...”
“Everybody knows. And it's not just a vague rumour, either: it's written in the Great Book of Traditions. You're not saying that the Great Book is lying, are you?”
Julien could have said that where he came from you could find any number of books that were completely unreliable, as well as books that contradicted other books, but he didn't think this was the time or place for an argument. So instead he said, “No, of course not. But... what are we going to do, then? Should we wait for someone to come and rescue us?”
“I think it's the only thing we can do.”
“But suppose nobody can get to us – or what if someone comes and then they can't get back either?”
Nobody spoke for a good three minutes, during which period they could see Askil getting more and more upset. Finally Ambar cleared his throat.
“I'm going to give it a go,” he said.
Niil glared at him. “You'll do nothing of the sort!”
“Ambar, you're my brother – my little brother, which means you have to do what I tell you. And if you so much as twitch without my permission I'll break your leg!”
His tone of voice made it quite clear that he really would go that far if it was the only way to prevent Ambar from putting himself in danger. But Ambar wasn't the sort to give in without a fight.
“Niil, someone has to do something! We can't expect Julien to, 'cos he don't even come from here – the Nine Worlds, I mean. And you're the Noble Son of a First Lord. Me, on the other hand, I'm just...”
“Ambar, you're the Noble Son of a First Lord too!” interrupted Niil. “And our father would never forgive me if I let my kid brother go somewhere dangerous instead of me. And...”
He lowered his voice a little. “And I don't want anything to happen to you either,” he finished.
Ambar looked at him in surprise, but he didn't argue any more. It was left to Julien to reopen the debate.
“Ambar's right,” he said. “We have to try to get out of this mess ourselves. I don't know why, but I'm pretty sure that we can.”
The stone they were standing on was a shiny dark green colour. He looked around, examining the adjoining stones.
“I don't like the look of this one,” he said, indicating a grey stone. “That one, on the other hand... I fancy giving that one a try.”
And before Niil could stop him he stepped onto the pink stone he had indicated and promptly vanished from their sight.
“No!!” cried Niil. He almost jumped after him, but he caught himself just in time, realising that it would be stupid to give the trap a second victim. He took a deep breath to bring himself back under control and gripped Ambar's hand firmly.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “don't let go of my hand!”
Too shocked to speak, Ambar just shook his head and squeezed Niil's hand tightly.
Niil was badly shaken: what had started out as a happy outing had ended in tragedy, and he was very much afraid that Julien's disappearance was only the start: he thought it entirely likely that both he and Ambar would die before much longer.
“Sorry if I scared you!”
Julien suddenly reappeared in front of them, and seeing him standing there, smiling rather sheepishly like a boy who has just broken his mother's favourite vase, Niil was torn between two conflicting emotions: on the one hand he was massively relieved to see his friend, whom he had already given up for dead, reappear in front of him, and on the other he was furious because of the scare he'd had. He couldn't decide whether to hug Julien or thump him. But eventually relief won the day and Niil laughed.
“You pillock!” he said. “You really scared us! Ambar almost started crying!”
Ambar was on the point of saying that he hadn't been the only one, but he managed to bite his tongue. He settled for giving Julien a wink and a smile instead.
“We can get through,” Julien told them. “I don't think we can go back, but we will be able to go forwards, though it took me a little while to work that out. And it took me even longer to realise that you couldn't see me any more and thought I was dead. Sorry!”
A few seconds passed without anyone speaking.
“Shall we go, then?” he asked.
“All right,” agreed Niil. We don't seem to have any alternative. You go and we'll follow you.”
Julien hesitated. “I think maybe we ought to stay holding hands,” he said.
Ambar really didn't want to let go of Niil's hand, and so he grabbed Julien with his other hand, keeping himself in the middle and so hopefully protected by the two older boys.
They stepped on to the pink stone. This time there were no sound effects, but they could see that they had moved: the Emperor's Palace was still sparkling ahead of them like a massive jewel.
Once again Julien took his time about examining the stones around the one they were standing on., and this time he settled for the fuchsia-coloured one directly in front of them, even though it was no different from the other stones adjoining theirs except for its colour.
“I think we want this one,” he said.
His companions said nothing. Left to themselves they would have been completely unable to choose between the available stones, and they thought that they would almost certainly pick the wrong one, which - if the Great Book was to believed - would probably lead to an unpleasant death. They knew that there were risks in trusting Julien's judgement, too, but if he thought he could get them through... and it wasn't as if they could think of any alternative plan. So they stepped with him onto the stone ahead of them. Nothing nasty happened, but when they looked at the Palace it now seemed to be a considerable distance further away, and they were also looking at it from a completely different angle.
“Klirks!” exclaimed Niil, breaking the silence.
The others stared at him in confusion.
“The stones – they're klirks!” he explained. “All right, maybe they're not all klirks, but that last one certainly was. We've moved a lot further away from the Palace.”
“I've never used a klirk,” commented Ambar, slowly, “but... don't you need a Guide to make them work?”
“Julien is a Guide!” said Niil.
“Is that true, Julien?” asked Ambar.
“I don't know. People keep telling me that, but...”
Ambar stared at him, a mixture of respect and fear clearly readable in his dark eyes, and at the same time he pulled his hand out of Julien's. Julien was surprised, and indeed a little hurt.
“What's up, Ambar?” he said, looking at him. “Have I suddenly grown horns and a forked tail? Am I turning into a monster? And are you actually scared of me??”
“No, Noble Lord, but you know, back where I come from, on the quays and round there, they tell stories about Guides and Sorcerers and such...”
“Now you're calling me 'Noble Lord' again,” Julien pointed out. “You can cut that nonsense out right away. I don't know what sort of camp-fire stories they tell on the quays, but I can promise you I haven't eaten anyone yet. Although if you carry on like that, maybe I'll make an exception in your case. Got it?”
Ambar said nothing, but he smiled and grabbed the Terrible Guide Julien's hand again.
“That's better,” said Julien. “Anyway, Niil, I think you're right to say that anyone who tried this without a Guide wouldn't get very far.”
“Yes, but even with a Guide, there must be some traps that will work! The Great Book of Traditions definitely says...”
“All right, I get it. Yes, we're probably surrounded by traps. I can even sort of sense some of them, which is how I decide which stone to move to next. I've got no idea how it works, or why, but there's definitely something telling me which way to go. Trust me, I'm not going to make a mistake.”
“Well, let's pray to the Powers of the R'hinz you're right about that, because if it turns out you're wrong I doubt if we'll even get time to say 'I told you so'.”
And with those cheery words they moved on to the next stone.
The Emperor's Palace
Three! There were three of them, and despite the odds they were well on the way towards completing what should have been an impossible task. Of course the traps were there, and the slightest wrong move would lead to their destruction.
But these three weren't making any wrong moves. They'd already completed more than thirty moves from one stone to the next, and every time they had chosen the single stone that would allow them to continue.
Xarax could sleep no longer. Xarax had to wake up properly and stretch his stiff joints. Xarax had to prepare himself to spend the last of his strength in what would probably be his final battle.
Xarax was a Haptir from Kretzlal.
There were no more flagstones. Now they were on a lawn dotted with carefully tended bushes whose blue flowers gave off a pleasant fragrance. There was no wall or fence around it, but an elegant arch of translucent green stone appeared to mark the way into the Palace grounds.
“I don't think we've got any choice,” Julien said. “I think we need to go in.”
They moved cautiously forward, afraid that they might have overlooked some final trap, but they passed through the jade arch without incident. None of them had the least idea that anyone else doing so would have been sliced to pieces by the blades hidden in the delicate carving that they paused to admire on their way through.
The inner garden went all the way up to the wall of the Palace, which had huge gates set into it at intervals of a hundred metres or so. The gate they were walking towards stood open, its silvery metal panels pushed flat against the wall on either side of a rectangular opening that at first glance was nothing special... except that as they got closer they saw that the gates were decorated with carvings of strange animals which seemed to be moving. They seemed to be chasing each other across the whole surface of the shining panels, and yet when Julien plucked up the courage to try actually touching something that looked a bit like a rabbit he felt only the cold hardness of immobile metal. But actually the most surprising thing abut this gate wasn't the incredible artwork, and it was Ambar who put it into words.
“Don't you think it's weird that there aren't no guards? Not even one?”
“Weird, and scary,” agreed Niil. “You'd think the Emperor would be better guarded than anyone else. This can't be normal.”
They walked through the entrance into a long gallery, their sandals sliding across the stone floor. Tall windows on either side of the gallery offered a view of the sky.
Eventually the gallery led them into a vast round hall whose glass floor gave you the impression that you were walking on the surface of some deep sea – each footstep made a noise like the whispering of distant surf. The domed roof was a dizzying height above them, and it was pierced by a number of round windows that allowed the sunlight to stream in.
“I hope we get to the inhabited bit soon,” commented Julien. “This Sleeping Beauty's Castle thing is getting creepy.”
“Sleeping Beauty?” queried Niil.
“Forget it. Let's just carry on until we find someone. Even if we get nabbed by the guards it'll give us a chance to explain ourselves and prove we're not really intruders.”
Alarm bells were ringing in his head. The enemy had entered the Palace. He was crossing the Ocean Rotunda. Xarax stretched one last time before launching himself into the galleries as fast as he could.
Xarax knew this place better than anyone, better even than the Emperor himself. Xarax was going to hurl himself on the intruders so quickly that they would have no chance of reaching the door.
Xarax could perceive something else approaching, too, something which brought back bad memories. This was definitely a bad day.
Xarax knew he was going to die, and that was a good thing. But what was going on in the Palace now was bad, as bad as it gets. The Emperor certainly would not like it, were he ever to find out – no, the Emperor would not like it at all.
Xarax was moving as fast as he could, but the thing which was approaching, the thing which was even worse than the intruders, that thing was moving even faster than Xarax. That thing had already arrived. It was fourfold.
But Xarax rushed towards it faster than ever. Xarax was not afraid.
Xarax was a Haptir from Kretzlal.
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