Chapter 7: Through the Forest.
A silence deeper than any Slayd had ever felt before pressed down upon them as they stood on the threshold of the forest. Slayd could hear neither birds nor insects, nor even the faint rustling of leaves. A path led from the temple gate into the depths of the wood and Guile began to follow it, pulling Slayd along behind him. As soon as they passed under the first shriveled grey branches, a feeling of apprehension swept over Slayd, and suddenly the labyrinthine halls of the temple seemed much more friendly and welcoming.
Nothing about the forest seemed to worry Guile, though. He continued along the path as if it were just a simple stroll through a sunny, well groomed park on a Saturday afternoon. Slayd kept a nervous eye on the trees, whose gnarled bark and tall, straight trunks seemed to move like the roots he had trod upon before on the shores of the lake, except these trees seemed to sway to a steady rhythm that he could not hear. There was no underbrush, but the sheer number of trees made it difficult for Slayd to see very far. The path twisted and turned through their trunks so often that Slayd could swear they doubled back more than they went forward.
“Guile?” Slayd whispered his name. It almost seemed sacrilege to speak into such a silence.
“What?” Guile’s own harsh whisper seemed to echo Slayd’s feelings.
“Does someone clear the trail? There are so many leaves on the forest floor, but none on our path.”
“Does it matter?”
Slayd scowled. It might not matter, but why couldn’t he just be curious?
As if anticipating Slayd’s thoughts, Guile shook his head. “None maintain this trail other than the trees themselves.”
The trees themselves? Slayd eyed the dense leaf litter on either side of the path. The leaves looked blood red even in the dim light. Slayd’s thoughts turned conspiratorial. If the trees are the ones that maintain the path, what would prevent them from changing or destroying it, if they wanted to get us lost?
He turned his eyes to the branches far above them. He could swear he saw many-eyed things in the top branches, following every move that he and Guile made. But every time he tried to get a better look at them, they vanished.
Weariness crept into Slayd’s legs as they trudged on through long miles of unending trees. He wished that dawn would come, but he didn’t know if there was anything other than night in this awful place. He certainly hoped that there was, but had the bad feeling that there was going to be only darkness wherever they went.
A sudden jolt in the leaves beside them startled Slayd out of his thoughts, and he stumbled back and fell to the ground. One of the trees’ roots had heaved itself out of the ground! It thrust straight up into the air like a heavy spear, then fell back into the leaf litter, writhing and twisting as it groped its way along the path.
Guile grabbed Slayd’s arm and dragged him to his feet, pulling him swiftly away from the gnarled root. “They don’t like us here. Trees are rarely jolly creatures.” He nodded at the still-groping root. “Though they are quite blind.”
That didn’t make Slayd feel any better, but Guile had moved on down the trail. “Come, Slayd. They will not harm you.”
Slayd hastily trotted after Guile. “How can you be so sure?”
Guile made an unpleasant gurgling in the back of his throat, which Slayd interpreted as scorn. “The pendant that Incavius gave you has great power over many things in this world, including trees. If they were to harm you, they would risk the wrath of the Lich King, and no mere tree would ignore such a threat.”
Slayd nodded, but didn’t feel any better. “Why can’t we just fly over the woods?”
Guile paused for a moment and turned to regard Slayd. “Oh poor little Slayd, do you think the forest will try to eat you?” He laughed a short, mocking laugh. “I said it will not harm you. The canopy is far too thick for me to fly through it and into the sky. I am not about to waste half a day of our time to go back to the temple just so I can fly us over the forest. And even if I was willing, nothing can fly over this place.”
His quiet voice dropped to barely a whisper. “There are things, Slayd, dangerous and deadly things lurking above that would tear us out of the sky and throw us into the branches below. Such an intrusion would undoubtedly make the trees very angry; angry enough that even the threat of your pendant would not stay them.” He turned and continued down the trail. “So no, Slayd. We will not fly. We will walk on.”
Slayd sighed. Perhaps he should try and put the forest as far from his mind as he could (given the current circumstances, and all). So to think about something else, he pulled his new pendant out from inside his shirt and studied it.
The designs around the pendant were carved to look like insects. He could see a spider at the very top, a fly carved at the bottom, and on either side were a beetle and a locust. Weaving in and out of the insect carvings were fancy designs which Slayd took to be runes of some sort, although he had no experience knowing what runes should look like. He fancied that maybe it was the written language of this world.
As he studied the pendant, the human-looking eye in its center blinked up at him, regarding him curiously, Slayd imagined. He could almost feel that it liked him, if eyes that were set in pendants could like people.
Having a magic pendant that can ward away disgruntled trees certainly cannot be anything but a good thing to have, he thought, particularly if it likes you.
Feeling a little better about his situation, Slayd turned his attention to Guile as he led the way along the trail ahead of them, and studied the back of his head. He frowned to himself, and wondered for the first time where Guile had gotten those three deep gashes in his skull.
Guile hissed quietly ahead of him, and shook his head. “Such things are not for the telling, Slayd. From your own recollection you will remember or no, and I will not assist you in recalling such stories. I have told you that one once before, and once is enough.”
Slayd blinked. “I... did not say anything.”
“You thought as much. Do not trouble yourself with my appearance.”
Slayd said not another word, but stared down at his footsteps instead. How did Guile do that?
The next couple of hours were saturated with awkward silence, broken only by their soft footfalls on the leafless path. No more tree roots attempted to catch at them, and still no wind stirred through the silent wood. It was almost as though the forest was intended to be a graveyard for its leaves.
Guile slowed ahead of Slayd, and pointed a long finger to their left.
“Look, Slayd. Here is one memory I will assist you in recollecting. It might be a risk on my part, but perhaps you have grown more open to such ideas. Or perhaps it is too soon to tell. We shall see.”
A pebbled path led away from the main trail and wound a short distance through the tall, straight tree trunks. Guile led the way down this secondary route. “We will have a quick spot to eat before the last leg of this little trek, though keep in mind we cannot stay long.”
The pebbled path quickly terminated at a shallow trough of rotting wooden planks which bordered a stone dais. A heavy pillar of white marble adorned the platform, worn and eroded. It might have had runes or other carvings etched into it at some point, but they had long since faded. Rusting bits of chain links were scattered around the pillar, and Slayd could smell a faint metallic odor in the still, heavy air.
“Am I… supposed to remember this place? It doesn’t seem at all familiar.”
Guile shrugged. “I did not think that you would. It was a long time ago, anyway.”
Slayd cautiously stepped onto one of the wooden planks, hesitating for a moment before climbing onto the dais. Guile hovered right behind him. A faint pain crept across Slayd’s temples and he rubbed them absently, wondering why he felt a little dizzy. He reached out a hand to touch a bit of chain. “What happened here, Guile?”
His guardian just shook his head and sighed. “Murders. Trials. Executions. You would do well to remember the name ‘Thrassis’ when you enter the halls of the Maggot King.”
Slayd frowned. “Who is that?”
“A murderer. I am sure you will hear his story in the royal palace of the Maggot Kingdom. There are many who will wish to tell you the tales of our own history when we arrive. Are you in pain?”
Slayd stopped rubbing his temples when Guile touched a fingertip to his forehead. “I feel a little dizzy.”
Guile drew the pack Incavius had given him off of his shoulder and pulled out a small wrapped package. “Here, eat something.”
Slayd accepted his food and chewed on it without much interest. “But… I don’t want people I don’t know telling me things I’m supposed to remember. I’d rather have you tell me.”
Guile snorted. “And you know me?”
Slayd flinched and hastily shook his head. “I know I don’t, but you said I had to trust you.”
“Indeed you do. At least for now. Though I would rather you remember things on your own, your part in this tale was merely as a spectator, so I assume it can do little harm for you to be told.
“Several ages ago there was a man named Thrassis, who held the title of Lord Flea. He had always been somewhat... unbalanced, and at some point he slipped into the habit of killing people; I won’t get into the ‘why’s’ of it, it really isn’t important. At first he was quite discreet about it, and the people never connected the coincidences between his appearance and the murders. But unfortunately for Lord Flea, he didn’t always have a tight grip on his self control.”
Guile paused for a moment, as if recollecting his memories. “There came a time when a ritual for summoning demons was going to be performed, and Lord Flea attended. There were dozens of others who had gathered to lend their power to the summoning. Some of the greatest of Dehalen were there.”
Slayd shook his head in disbelief. “Why would anyone want to summon demons?”
A bitter smile crept over Guile’s face. “You do not know or remember anything about the way this world works, Slayd. The demons that plague this world can only be summoned by those powerful enough to control or subdue them, and doing so is a dangerous task. But in summoning and subduing such creatures, one has the potential to control – at least partially - the workings of the world. It could even be possible to influence the world for the better. Such was the dream of the greatest of us.”
Slayd nodded dumbly, and Guile resumed his story. “In any regard, for reasons I don’t care about, after the summoning Lord Flea threw any caution he may have had to the wind and murdered two of the people who had attended. One of the two was the eldest son of the Maggot King, whose palace we aim for right now. Naturally the murders caused an uproar among the people. Lord Flea was captured, but he was cunning. He managed to escape, and the Mosquito King had to be entreated to pursue him.
“The Mosquito King is a hunter by nature. It’s what he does best. Although I must say that Lord Flea gave him a short but difficult pursuit. But the inevitable came about, and the Mosquito King captured him, and he was brought to the Judgment Seat.”
Slayd fingered one of the rusted chains lying near him. “That’s where we are now.”
Guile nodded. “Yes. Although at the time this was an open field upon a hill, only distantly surrounded by the forest that has since consumed it. In any event, there was a trial and a public display of torture, intended on being followed by death. I won’t get into the details of it now, but suffice it to say that Lord Flea had an advocate who spoke on his behalf. This enraged the entire gathering, and the Maggot King's younger son tried to enforce the death sentence himself. But he was easily overpowered by Lord Flea, who broke his bonds and escaped amidst the confusion of the crowd. He fled to the farthest reaches of the world, and one can probably assume with a degree of certainty that he has long since been swallowed up by the Veil.”
Slayd nodded slowly. He could almost envision an angry mob surrounding the dais, demanding retribution from Lord Flea by his life. He rubbed his temple again.
Guile stood and stretched his joints and wings, making a crackling sound as he did so. “Perhaps we should continue on our journey. There are still some miles to go before we reach our destination.”
He held a hand to Slayd, and they headed back to the main trail. The trees mutedly protested their return with trembling branches, but Guile paid them no mind.
They traveled on in silence, the only sound the soft padding of their feet along the trail and the occasional crunching of a stray leaf. The forest seemed to change little as they passed through its miles of leaves and branches. The trees moved no more to grab at Slayd, and seemed content to glare at them in stillness. There were no animals or birds to break the persistent silence, and talking seemed indecent beneath the branches.
Bored with the unchanging scenery around him, Slayd slipped into a trance of monotony, lulled by the soft rhythm as their footsteps on the forest path blended together with their breathing.