Dale cursed mentally and spun around, hunting other targets, but the night was still once again with nothing more unusual than a few fireflies flitting through the air. After several seconds, he took a deep breath, activated the safety on the blaster, and looked around for Kheri.
The younger man was huddled on the ground not far away, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees, trembling.
“Are you all right?” Dale asked as he knelt down beside him.
Kheri shook his head and shuddered. He took a shaky breath, swallowed and looked up into Dale’s eyes. “What…” he whispered. “What was… were….”
Dale put a steading hand on Kheri’s shoulder. “Those were Gorgs. Nasty, evil, foul tempered creatures that only live to do one thing.”
“What?” Kheri’s voice trembled.
“Kill for fun and profit. In the most unpleasant ways they can.” Dale stood up then reached down to help Kheri to his feet. “And they are evidently after me, which means we do not stay here. We’re putting your aunt in danger.”
“Where did they come from?” Kheri’s voice still shook, his gaze locked on Dale’s face.
Dale studied Kheri’s expression. Backwater planet, lots of superstitions, should have seen this one coming. “Kheri,” he pointed up at the stars. “Tell me what those are.”
Kheri blinked then glanced up at the sky, confused. “The stars?”
“I dunno. Lights or something?”
Dale grinned. “Something. Those are suns. Like the sun that rises and sets every morning only they are so far away, they look like little dots.”
Kheri gazed up at the sky. He’d never thought much about the stars before. They were pretty, it was nice to have them in the sky at night, but that was the extent of his scientific curiosity. “Suns… but why’s it dark then?”
“Because they are so far away that by the time their light reaches us, there’s not much left.”
“That,” Dale interrupted, “is where the Gorg come from. Out there. From another world. A really unpleasant place.”
“They’re not… demons?”
“I guess that depends on your definition of demon. They’re flesh and blood, but that’s about it. Their actions would fit most of the stories of demons I’ve ever heard.”
“But you killed them!”
Dale shook his head. “I killed one. The other two fled. They’ll be back though, and I’d prefer not to be anywhere near your aunt when they return. Things could get very ugly if they bring reinforcements.”
Kheri shuddered. “Are you…” he faltered and glanced back up at the sky.
“One of the Gorg?”
Kheri nodded then shook his head rapidly. “Yes, well no. Not one of them but….”
“Yes. And I’m currently stranded here.”
Kheri rubbed his head, confusion radiating off him in almost tangible waves.
Dale took a deep breath before placing his hand firmly on Kheri’s shoulder. “It’s a very long story, and you might not understand most of it. Are you sure you want to hear this?”
Kheri swiveled his head to look over his shoulder at the area in front of the barn. “Yeah.” He turned his attention back to Dale. “I’d kind of like to know what else might show up in the middle of the night.”
Dale chuckled. “I thought you’d be begging to stay here with your aunt.”
“You made it real clear earlier I’m not free to do that and…” he shuddered. “I would really prefer not to get on your bad side, okay?”
Dale gave him a faint, lopsided grin, then walked over to sit on the stump Kheri’s aunt used when splitting firewood.
Kheri followed, skirting the area where the Gorg had been with wary caution.
Dale ignored him and scanned the night sky for several minutes, searching for familiar constellations. “I have absolutely no idea where I am,” he said, turning to Kheri after his search proved fruitless. “So, I can’t point out the exact location of anything. But I’ll try to explain. All the dots up there are suns and some are about the same size as the one you see every day. Some are smaller, some are much larger….” He launched into a short beginner’s astronomy lesson.
Kheri said nothing, listening and occasionally gazing up at the sky.
Dale paused after a few minutes. “With me so far?”
“Yeah. Kinda hard to believe though.” He pointed up at the sky. “So every one of those dots has a world? With people?”
“No. Most of them don’t have anything, but enough of them do. Most the worlds are inhabited by decent people, but a few have creatures like the Gorgs living on them.”
Kheri shuddered and turned around, as if he expected to see more of them materializing.
Dale scanned the night sky, saying nothing more for several minutes before turning his attention back to Kheri. “Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t be a problem. They’re too stupid to get off their world on their own.”
“But….” Kheri protested, pointing a quivering a finger in the general direction of the ambush.
Dale held up his hand. “But… there are people who are more than willing to provide them with the necessary tools. They use them to do their dirty work.”
“So why doesn’t someone stop them?”
“We try. Sometimes we win, sometimes they do.”
Kheri’s eyebrows shot up. “We? You’re a guard?” His mind conjured up images of the town guards doing battle with the Gorgs.
Dale grinned. “Something like that. That’s not quite the same as what I usually do, but it’s close enough.”
“So is that why they are after you?”
Dale shrugged. “There could be a lot of reasons. Maybe someone has a grudge against me. Maybe I walked into the wrong bar. Maybe they thought I was someone else. Who knows.” He stood up from the stump and dusted the back of his pants. “Personally, I don’t feel like sticking around to ask them.”
Kheri shivered again, and then nodded his head vigorously. “Yeah, me either.”
“They won’t be back tonight,” Dale said as they started for the house. “They’ll have to go back, get new orders, probably get replaced with others… Gorg employers tend to dislike failure. By the time they return, I intend to be far away. Very far away.”
Kheri stopped walking as Dale’s last comment sunk in. “Like… how far is far?”
Dale paused and took a deep breath, and then crossed his arms and turned to Kheri. “Far enough that they can’t easily find me. They’ll search at least fifty miles around where they saw me last, so farther than that.”
The younger man groaned. “That’ll take us completely out of the Barony and into the wilds!”
“So, do you have any idea what’s out there?!” Kheri’s voice rose in direct proportion to his escalating hysteria.
“No. Do you?”
“Yeah. Ogres and Trolls and Dragons and Bilbeasts and Bandits and…” Kheri ran through a long list of possible horrors.
Dale stood silently, waiting for him to wind down. “And you’ve seen these things?”
“Well… no. But I’ve heard about them!”
“You have, however, seen the Gorg. Do you honestly want to be where they’ll be looking when they come back?”
“Uh… not especially, no. But they’re just coming back for you aren’t they?”
“Maybe. But you were out here too. Did they see you?”
“I… don’t… know… I don’t think so. They didn’t show up till you were halfway back from the barn.”
“Then they might not come looking for you. Are you sure you want to take that chance?”
Dale’s words cut through Kheri with a chill like an icy lake in winter. He shuddered. “No.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
Kheri crossed his own arms and scowled. “Not that I have any choice.”
Dale crooked one corner of his mouth into a lopsided grin. “There is that. But you could be in a lot worse shape.”
“Yeah, I could be sleeping in an alley,” Kheri grumbled, sarcasm dripping from his words.
“You could be lying dead in the street at hands of the town guard.”
Kheri twisted his face into a scowl then remembered how easily Dale had spotted the guard he hadn’t seen. “Yeah, I guess. But this would be a whole lot easier if you’d ask instead of ordering!”
Dale captured Kheri’s gaze and held it.
Kheri set his jaw and met Dale’s eyes for a few seconds then wilted and stared at his hands. “Well, it would,” he muttered.
“You want that, earn it.”
Dale’s tone was hard and Kheri flinched, wilting further. “Yes, sir,” he whispered.
Dale softened. He put a gentle hand on Kheri’s shoulder. “If you don’t force me to give orders, I’m much more likely to make requests.”
The day had been one shock after the other and Kheri’s emotions teetered on the edge of disintegration. He’d toyed several times with the idea of escape but now he stood, staring at Dale’s feet, while the realization of just how out matched he was smacked him in the face. He resigned himself to living under Dale’s command for a while, took a deep breath, and looked back up. “When do we leave?”
“As soon as it’s light.”