The morning sun had long since cleared the overnight dew and its heat announced that another very hot day was under way. Julien walked along next to Aïn, keeping his hand on the Guide's neck so that they could communicate with each other. As was true of his entire species, Aïn was very sensitive about both friendship and rejection, and the way that Julien had stepped in to prevent any action being taken against him by the Council of Guides, as well as his insistence on working only with him, had completely won his heart. Julien didn't yet realise it, but he had made an ally of unshakable loyalty.
This was Julien's first trip into the grounds of the Tower since the attempt on his life, and for that reason Xarax was with him too – it had been decided that every time Julien left the kang he should take Xarax with him. The haptir was perched on his shoulder as usual with his tail wrapped around Julien's neck, and Julien wasn't sure if this was necessary to maintain his balance or simply a gesture of affection.
From time to time they passed one of the guards, who studiously ignored this strange trio, but before too long they left the well-trodden paths and ornamental shrubberies and headed instead into an area of untended growth, and after pushing their way through the bushes they entered a small clearing in a grove that looked no different to any of the others.
Here it is, My Lord, thought Aïn.
I thought we were going to a klirk?
Indeed we are, My Lord, but this is a secret one.
Aïn spoke in his strange falsetto voice: “Wahi!” he said.
The grass, which until then had just looked like ordinary grass, flattened in places to form the complex pattern of a klirk.
It took three Masters of the Major Arts to establish and hide this klirk, he explained. It will last for all time. It's one of the one hundred and eight resource-klirks on Nüngen. Only the Emperor or one of the Master Guides of the Upper Circle can use it.
So where does it go?
To the Orientation Table. That's where Guides choose their destination. The people they transport have no memory of it, just as they can't remember what we look like, either, except when they're actually in contact with one of us.
What do you mean?
If you ask someone to describe a Guide, they won't be able to.
But... I can remember you perfectly, and the other Guides, too!
That's because nobody would dare to interfere with the Emperor's memory.
So... you mean that normally the Guides wipe the memories of the people they transport?
Of course. It's something that we're allowed to do in exchange for our services.
But why? Why do you need to do that?
The guides are free to accept, or refuse, anyone who asks them for transport. Furthermore, they are not permitted to transport people in certain circumstances If just anyone could identify and recognise a Guide, some people would be sure to try to persuade them, or even coerce them. But the Guides are loyal only to the Emperor, because the Emperor is the one who gives them their privileges.
But apparently some of the Guides are working for the Emperor's enemies. They even transported those ghorrs, didn't they?
I don't know. Such a thing has never happened before, which is why the Guild of Guides is investigating it. The honour of all Guides is at stake.
Not to mention the safety of the Emperor...
That's true. But now I'm going to take you to the Orientation Table so that you can start to learn again how to use it yourself.
I hope it's not too difficult!
The only way is to memorize as many destinations as you can. That's why a Guide's training takes so long – it's not enough just to have the Gift...
Thanks for reminding me, Aïn!
No, that's not what I...
It's all right, I'm joking. But I suppose I was lucky I landed here in Aleth.
Luck had nothing to do with it, My Lord: it was down to the expertise of Yol the Intrepid. I've no idea how he managed it, but somehow he arranged for you to come back. I hope he manages to find his way back to the Nine Worlds himself... Anyway, now I'm going to activate this path.
They were standing side by side on the grass, and Julien could clearly feel Ain's mind tense up as he prepared to activate the strange magic of the klirk.
And they jumped straight into a nightmare.
The klirk was a trap! It was now an instrument of death designed to kill the person using it, and of course logically that person had to be the Emperor, as this was one of his special resource-klirks. That is why Aïn's brain was not instantly fried by the huge energy overload that the klirk generated: it had been prepared for the Emperor, and if Julien had activated the klirk himself he would certainly have died. But even though the trap hadn't been tuned to the Guide's mind, the massive shock still sent Aïn into a deep coma.
Julien survived only because, in the fraction of a second when he had realised that something was wrong, Aïn had torn himself away from Julien's grasp, thus breaking the link between their minds. However, the hole torn in the fabric of the universe lasted long enough to propel Julien into a place – or non-place – where nobody would ever willingly go: into the terrible chaos of the Outside.
Had he been alone, Julien would probably have gone insane through absolute terror in less than thirty seconds. But even as he opened his mouth to scream, Xarax instinctively took over his mind and closed down all his senses. And there, insulated inside a sort of cocoon and sheltered from the continual torrent of noise and images pouring from the entrails of the universe, the haptir worked to reassure and instruct his friend.
Don't be afraid, he said. Xarax is with you. The Outside is full of scary things, but they can't get at you unless you allow fear to control you. Chaos is terrible because anything can emerge from it: if you think about demons, they will appear and eat you. But if you think about the wonders of the Nine Worlds, they also will appear before you. This is the Outside, and all the paths to and from the klirks pass through it. Guides cross it all the time and are not harmed by it.
Aïn! What has happened to Aïn?
Xarax does not know. Aïn might be dead. Xarax thinks that the klirk was a trap designed to kill the one who used it. But now you must find your own way through the Outside. Xarax cannot do that. But Xarax will help you. You are a Guide: you possess the Gift. Aïn said so.
Julien was about to protest that he was unable to do anything of the kind, but Xarax stopped him even before the thought could fully take shape.
You are Yulmir! Xarax know this, and he will not allow his friend to hide in the attitude of a scared little child! Xarax now understands what happened to his friend: he was almost certainly a victim of a similar trap. That is why he has lost his memory.
Xarax, if I had been caught in a trap like that on my own I would be dead!
It is more complicated than that. Much more complicated. But now is not the time to discuss it. Now we must find a path. Otherwise Julien really will die, and Xarax too. Are you willing to try?
Quite apart from the fact that there was no choice in the matter, Julien also felt a new determination filling him, and he realised that Xarax had been unscrupulous enough to manipulate his thinking in some way. He wasn't terribly happy about that, but he realised that the urgency of their predicament was possibly a reasonable justification for it.
Of course I will try. What do I have to do? he asked.
Right now, nothing. First, Xarax will reactivate your senses, and you will once again be immersed in the Outside. Unfortunately there is no gradual way to do that. Just remember that Xarax is with you and that nothing can happen to you as long as you remain calm.
Immediately he was back in Hell. There is no way to describe the Outside. There was nothing to see, but nevertheless he felt he was drowning in both darkness and a light brighter than a lightning flash, a light which roared silently in his mind. At the same time he could hear whispers of revolting things, hiding, but really close, like the cellar-monster which he had been so frightened of when he was small, or the evil creature that he had been sure lived in the kitchen cupboard – hostile, slimy things, absolutely malevolent, and which only needed him to become distracted for a second in order to pounce on him and...
Everything stopped, and again he heard Xarax's voice in his head.
All is well. Be calm. There is no danger.
At the same time Julien was swamped in a wave of tenderness, making him feel like a little boy wrapped in his father's arms after a bad dream. Part of him knew that this was just the haptir manipulating him, but all the same he was grateful for the sense of relief it brought, grateful enough to cry a little.
Thank you, Xarax. I'm starting to see how it works. We can try again if you like.
Once again he was surrounded by chaos. He felt/saw disgusting things swarming around him, but he managed not to look at their centipede-like bodies. He managed not to listen to the threats whispered into the dark folds of the incandescent darkness. He realised, finally, that he was in no danger of falling into the abysses that gaped open at his feet and seemed to be trying to suck him down into their roaring depths...
It took him a long time and called for a great deal of help from Xarax before he was finally able to stand still in the middle of the Outside's fundamental instability. He needed countless attempts before he was eventually able to perform this miracle, and he thought he would die from exhaustion or terror before he finally discovered how he could draw energy from this same source that gave light to the stars. In this non-place it was impossible to measure time, and it seemed to him simultaneously that years had gone by and that he had been striving for only an instant.
Now you must find a path, said Xarax. Use your gift!
Using the Gift was no longer the problem: Julien had had ample opportunity to become familiar with it during his struggle to control his own mind and the chaos that surrounded him. The problem now was that the trap-klirk's energy, as well as killing Aïn, had thrown him a very long way – insofar as distance actually meant anything here – from the paths most frequently travelled by the Guides. Nor was there anything that Xarax could do to help as Julien tried to scan the non-space in search of a clue that might enable him to reach the Orientation Table.
I can't do it, Xarax! he said. We're too far away!
Near or far have no meaning here. We are nowhere.
You're right, but even so I should be able to find something – like a scent, or a feeling of déjà-vu. But there's nothing. We're lost, Xarax.
Julien, Yol the Intrepid managed to find you. He must have discovered some trace that led him to your world. If you cannot find the R'hinz, maybe you can find the path to your own home?
Xarax, you're a genius!
As soon as he had suppressed his memories of Aleth and replaced them with his memories of the coast of Normandy he perceived something that had not been there a second before. It had neither form nor colour, but he could feel it, like a hairline crack in a piece of glass – something thin, twisting and bright that sank through the abysses of the universe and led to Earth. He couldn't have said why he was so sure, but he was absolutely convinced that this was the path he had been looking for. Furthermore, he now knew what he had to do, and without any further delay he threw himself into the same fault-line that Yol had followed years previously.
Aïn wasn't found until the beginning of the afternoon. He was found by Waën, a member of the High Council of the Guides, whom Tannder had alerted when he started to worry about Julien's prolonged absence. He'd explained where Julien and Aïn had been intending to go, and Waën promptly went to the nearest resource-klirk and discovered the unfortunate Guide, unconscious and barely breathing.
The Health Masters immediately started trying to draw him out of his coma, and at some point during the night he was able to utter a few coherent sentences. What he had to say sounded like a death-knell to the hopes of the small number of people who were aware that the Emperor had returned, and it was Tannder who had the difficult job of telling Niil and Ambar about it.
“But there is hope,” he added. “Aïn is almost sure that Julien didn't die. He thinks Julien was probably thrown off into the Outside, but he's fairly sure that he himself took most of the shock of the trap.”
“But if the Outside is anything like what I've heard about it, Julien's probably gone insane even if he wasn't hurt by the trap!” cried Niil, furiously.
Ambar didn't say anything: he was just trying not to collapse or burst into tears.
“We don't know about that,” said Tannder, “and Aïn is too weak to tell us much more. But we're fairly sure that Julien isn't alone: Xarax is with him.”
“Can't we do something?” demanded Niil. “It must be possible to look for him!”
“If anything can be done it'll have to be the Guides that do it,” said Tannder. “And in any case I'm afraid the First Lord won't let you get involved. In fact, he's already said that you should be sent back to Dvârinn for your own protection.”
“Tannder, we have to stay here! When Julien gets back he'll definitely need us! And in any case the First Lord can't just order us about like that. You and me, we're both part of the Emperor's House now – and I've been emancipated, remember? He can't treat me like a kid and send me off to bed any more!”
“Technically, that's true,” said Tannder. “But I really don't think it would be a good idea to butt heads with the First Lord over this.”
“Well, what do you suggest, then?”
“I think you should thank the First Lord for his hospitality, assure him that you remain at his disposal if he can think of any way in which you could help to find Julien, and then take yourself and Ambar back to Dvârinn. I'll stay here and keep you informed about what's going on.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
“I've got more friends than you seem to imagine. I know several Guides who would be prepared to make discreet trips between here and Dvârinn to carry my messenger; and as for the messenger himself, I think Karik would be perfect, because hardly anyone knows who he is. Trust me, Noble Lord, the less conspicuous you are, the freer you'll be to help when the time comes. And as for Ambar, as the Emperor's Pupil he'll need you to look after him.”
“Even so, do you think I could go and visit Master Aïn? If he's intending to go looking for Julien maybe he'll agree to take me with him. I could be useful. After all, I'm sure I know Julien better than anyone else around here.”
“I could take you to see him, but I'm certain that he would refuse to take you with him. And it would be sure to attract the wrong sort of attention.”
“Well, then at least go and see him and tell him that I hope he gets well soon. Tell him I don't hold him responsible for what has happened, and that, if he will accept it, I'd like to offer him the friendship of a Ksantiri.”
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org