They knew it could only mean bad news when Tannder burst in on them while they were having their breakfast, and what he had to say simply confirmed it.
"My Lord," he said, "strong winds are forecast for Djannak Island within no more than two days. That would probably make it impossible to get there by flybubble for quite a long period. Worse, the wind is likely to come from the south-west, and if it does it could blow the poison gas towards inhabited areas, and maybe even as far as Ksantir."
Julien sighed, because obviously his plan to relax with his friends had just gone out of the window.
"All right, Tannder," he said. "Just give me two minutes to say goodbye to my friends and I'll be right there."
"If you're going back to Dvârinn I'm coming with you," said Niil. "Ambar can stay here – there's no reason to mess up his holiday. At least he can stay here with his friends."
"But I want to come with you!" protested Ambar.
"No," said Niil, firmly. "I'm going with Julien, because it's the least I can do after... well... and in any case it's my duty as First Lord of the Ksantiris. But I don't want you going anywhere near that place."
Ambar possessed the rare quality of knowing when to keep quiet when faced with an insurmountable argument. He did his best to hide his disappointment and his fears for their safety during their exchange of goodbyes which hid their real thoughts under a façade of good humour, because although he didn't know exactly what was facing Julien he was pretty sure it was going to be dangerous.
They stayed at the First House in Ksantir only long enough to put on the protective suits that had been adjusted to fit them, and then they began the journey to Djannak. The flybubble they were using was a dull grey colour, nothing like the beautiful multicoloured machines that Julien had admired so much on Nüngen. But although it wasn't very pretty it was a fair bit faster than the ones on Nüngen had been, and it also had an enclosed, and apparently airtight, gondola. Tannder told them that the gas envelope was worth a fortune because it was made from the same material as a hatik and was therefore almost impossible to puncture. This came as good news to the boys, who hadn't forgotten their last flybubble journey or the crash that ended it.
It was early afternoon, and the cloudless sky gave them a perfect view of the landscape beneath them. Julien recognised the place where he had gone to meet Ugo, and then they reached more mountainous country. The flybubble entered a canyon with near-vertical walls of reddish rock, and this led them, after a series of twists and turns, into a large natural amphitheatre surrounded by impassible cliffs. The still waters of a small lake reflected the image of the flybubble as it descended to land on the shore.
"The warehouse is hidden, My Lord," explained Master Subadar. "Actually it's that big mass of fallen rocks at the base of the cliff over there. But you don't need to go inside. It would be best to call the Neh-kyong from here. Do you feel ready?"
"I don't think anyone could ever feel ready for that, Subadar. But I'm going to do it anyway."
"Whatever you do, don't take your mask off, unless you want to end up like Na..."
At the last moment Subadar stopped himself from mentioning Nandak's name out of consideration for Niil, and went on instead, "Like others who didn't take the necessary precautions."
"You've already told me that more times than I can remember. Don't worry, I'll be careful."
Niil wanted to say something but found that his voice wouldn't work properly, and so he just squeezed Julien's shoulder as he stepped into the airlock.
Julien climbed down the few rungs to the ground, walked about ten metres away and then watched the flybubble ascend slowly and almost silently into the air until it was about a hundred metres above him, and there it stopped, a huge oblong form which looked dark and somehow almost threatening as it hung motionless in the completely still air. He gave a last wave to those who were watching him from up there and then started to put himself into the state of semi-trance he would need in order to open the gates of the Interworld.
He'd been through the operation several times in the past few days, first within the safe environment of the Narthex, then in a secluded corner of the garden around Bakhtar Tower, and so by now he knew about the strange environment of the Interworld. It was completely different from the howling chaos of the Outside: the Interworld was more or less a calm limbo where time didn't really matter. There wasn't a real landscape there either, because everything there, while it had a physical existence, seemed to lack proper definition, not least because the forms that existed there did so in several different dimensions in a way that neither the senses nor the intellect could properly grasp. A hill was still a hill, but in an environment where up and down, left and right, near and far, were inadequate terms to describe anything – and so a hill was also something else: it had what might be called 'additional reality' in a way that both blurred and sharpened the vision of anyone trying to look at it. This was highly disconcerting, and could easily lead to the viewer becoming fixated and fascinated by it to a fatal degree.
Colours, too, extended far beyond the normally-visible spectrum, and because of the lack of a proper frame of reference to describe them they seemed to overflow into other senses, hearing and smell for example. Or sometimes everything came together in a sort of holistic flash, until the viewer thought he was surrounded by something that held the key to understanding the entire universe.
It had taken Julien hours of hard training before he was actually able to think clearly in this environment. And once he'd finally managed that he had to move on to being able to create in his mind the image which would produce, in the hyperspace of the Interworld, a signal or call that was powerful enough to attract the attention of a Neh-kyong. In order to do that he performed a complicated dance, the rhythm of which helped him to coordinate the sequence of movements and mental images that he would then repeat, over and over, until he attracted the attention of a Neh-kyong. If only he had had a little round deer-skin drum his strangely-gesticulating shape would have looked exactly like that of a tribal shaman back on Earth.
It only took a few minutes of normal time before his call started to attract some onlookers. He could feel their presence, as if huge beasts were coming to sniff at him. He knew that most of them had no more intelligence than the average cow, but he could also sense that, somewhere among them, there was the sharper signal of a Neh-kyong. He stopped performing his ritual.
"Human-Julien Berthier-Emperor of the R'hinz ka aun li Nügen-Lord of the Nine Worlds-Only Keeper of the Powers and Gifts. To whom are you calling?"
The voice resounding in his head, although it also possessed its own timbre and individuality, was similar to Tchenn Ril's and was undoubtedly that of a Neh-kyong. And indeed there was a Neh-kyong standing before him, impossible to define clearly but radiating a great curiosity. As Subadar had warned him would be the case, Julien was aware that the Neh-kyong already knew exactly why he was there because it had complete access to his mind. It was possible to erect a sort of mental screen that would have offered him a certain level of privacy from the probing of a Neh-kyong, but it took a great deal of training and in any case it wasn't really necessary for this mission.
"I'm calling a Neh-kyong so that he can take possession of a part of the world of Dvârinn and make it his own forever," Julien replied.
"This is a rich place," said the Neh-kyong, "and it contains an abundance of precious energy. What would a Neh-kyong have to pay in exchange for the opportunity to feed and take up his residence in it for all time? Every gift has a price, and this is a gift of great value."
"He would have to make sure that no creature of this universe crossed his threshold or, if it succeeded in doing so by trickery or by force, that it would never leave it again, either dead or alive. He would also have to ensure that no noxious substance ever escaped from this place into the surrounding area."
"Do you have the power to make such a covenant?"
"Yes, I do."
"And are you aware that if you do not in fact have this power, the deal will kill you?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then I declare that this place, called Tchiwa Ri Kor, will henceforth be my exclusive domain, and that once you and those who travelled here with you have left no creature will enter it without losing his life or, if they should somehow enter by stealth or by force, they will not leave it again, either alive or dead. Chaos is my witness, and I will trade a Drop of your blood for an Instant of my life."
And then during a moment that seemed to have no duration but which would remain etched on Julien's memory for the rest of his life, he actually became the Neh-kyong Tchiwa Ri Kor. He saw how easily he was able to bypass the feeble protection of Julien's radiation suit and take from within his heart a drop of blood, at that instant actually becoming, for a fleeting moment, Julien, with complete and unrestricted access to his being. Later he would try to describe what it was like to be a Neh-kyong, but no human language would have been sufficient to do that. He would only be able to remember how, seen through the Neh-kyong's perception, this sinister and poisonous environment was transformed into a paradise filled with vital energy and pure pleasure. And he also understood in that moment the warning he had been given, because this moment of overwhelming unity with the Keeper of this place exceeded anything that a normal human mind could have withstood, and he knew for certain that the only reason that it did not destroy his mind was because he truly possessed the power to make this covenant.
The return journey was uneventful. Once the pact was sealed Julien signalled to the flybubble, and once he was aboard they headed back towards Ksantir, which – as soon as they were a safe distance away - allowed everyone to get out of their cumbersome suits. Then Julien, using information he had collected from the Neh-kyong's mind, drew a circle on a map indicating the exact limits of the domain of Tchiwa Ri Kor, the Circle of Death Mountains, in order that all access to it could be blocked and titanium warning signs could be erected so that anyone who chanced that way would know in advance what would happen to him if he failed to turn back.
Once they got back to the First House in Ksantir Niil took Julien to a private study.
"Thank you," he said.
Julien looked surprised. "What for?" he asked.
"Well, you've removed a serious danger from our island."
"I don't think much of that was actually down to me."
"You're the one who invoked a Neh-kyong."
"That's not all that difficult once you know how."
"Really? To be honest, they give me the creeps."
"They're not usually hostile as long as you don't try to steal their territory, and the one I met today was a good one. There was nothing to be afraid of."
"Well, thanks anyway."
"All right. Of course, I didn't do that for free. I want a reward."
Now it was Niil's turn to look surprised.
"Really?" he said. "Well, all right. What is it that you want?"
"I want you to take three days off and to come and spend them with us."
"Tahlil won't be happy if I do that."
"Let me worry about Tahlil. He'll be only too happy to do me a favour. In any case he'll need to stay here for a few more days in order to oversee the blockages and warning signs around Tchiwa Ri Kor. Still, if you don't fancy spending three wonderful days on a lake-shore in Paradise I'm not going to twist your arm..."
"All right, all right! It'll mean postponing what I'm sure would have been a fascinating visit to the coal mine at Tang'aleen, but I expect I'll find a way to manage my disappointment..."
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