Chapter 8: The Watcher.

  Unfortunately for Slayd his boredom did not last long. A queer prickly sensation ran up the back of his neck, and the uncanny feeling of being watched quickly followed in its wake. As he walked, he strained to see if there was anything in the trees that he could make out against the darkness. He saw some shadows that moved, and while he didn’t like the look of those either, they definitely were not what was making him feel unnerved. He looked back behind him and jumped, grabbing onto Guile’s arm. Guile hissed at him and shook him off, but he just grabbed it again.
   “There’s something behind us, Guile,” he whispered, “it’s following us, I know it is.”
   And just as he whispered to Guile, they heard the very faint snap of a twig, and then sudden silence.
   Guile didn’t stop moving to investigate. Instead, he wrapped his arm around Slayd’s waist and ushered him forward, walking much faster than before. It wasn’t long before they heard a faint rustle in the leaf litter among the trees behind them, and again the occasional snap of a twig. Whatever was behind them was running to catch up, and Guile quickened his pace once again.
   The path ahead of them was winding in and out through the trees, and it was very difficult to see where it was going to turn next. Slayd was just hoping that they wouldn’t run straight into a grumpy tree or trip over a stray root or fallen limb, or any number of Bad Things that might happen when you can’t really see where you’re going in a dark forest.
   But Guile didn’t seem to care if they did run into anything because he broke into an all-out run, opened his wings, and began to fly low along the curving path, carrying Slayd with him. He zigzagged headlong through the trees with such speed that Slayd squeezed his eyes shut, anticipating a very painful impact any time now. But no such impact happened, and instead he felt Guile slow suddenly. He jerked in his flight, moving up instead of ahead, and then came to a sudden landing. Slayd tumbled out of his arms and landed in a pile of the dark red leaves.
   They found themselves in a huge clearing, but it was still very dark. The trees’ canopy was still above, engulfing the clearing overhead. In the center of this wide clearing was a tall, black marble building that reached up and pierced through the canopy of trees. It looked very similar to the temple buildings, except there were no carvings or symbols anywhere on it, and all around it were tall, narrow spires that pointed up towards the sky, if the sky really was above them, somewhere.
   Guile whipped around to glance behind them, staring hard into the darkness. He pulled Slayd to his feet and thrust him behind one of the larger spires. He stood low over Slayd, peering around the stone and searching for whoever - or whatever - it was that had been following them.
   They heard low, heavy snuffling noises, like the breathing of a hound or a wild animal searching out a scent. Slayd strained his vision in the dark, but he could see nothing. Hoping to find some sort of reassurance from Guile, he glanced up only to see his guardian’s teeth bared in a feral grin, a leer of excitement bleeding through his face.
   But as Guile watched the path, a sharp rusty clang! echoed from the marble building beside them, and the heavy breathing noises suddenly stopped. Guile turned his attention to this new sound, and eyed the single narrow door inset in the tower’s frame. Another creaking clang! sounded through the clearing, which suddenly seemed cloistered and far too small. The door slowly swung inwards, and a figure emerged from the tower.
   Slayd shrank back against Guile, forgetting the invisible terror that had been pursuing them.
   The figure could have been almost a man, or might have once been a man, but certainly was one no longer. What might have been his arms hung clear to the ground, terminating in ragged mockeries of long hands. A heavy, cracked mask covered all of his face save for a single enormous, deformed eye. He stood for a moment in the archway of the tower, staring fixedly into the forest gloom that Guile and Slayd had just emerged from, and where their unknown pursuer still lurked.
   Guile shoved Slayd’s clinging hands away from him, and he stood from their scant hiding place beside the spire. Immediately the creature’s eye was fixed on them, and he lurched towards them with surprising speed.
   Slayd gave a cry and cowered behind Guile. He was sure it would only be a brief moment before they were torn to pieces by those mutilated hands, but Guile did not seem to recognize the danger.
   “Hail, Watcher in the Wood. I greet you in the name of the Lich King, our Lord and Dehalen’s Saviour.” He bowed low and grinned.
   The creature that Guile had called Watcher paused its gait with such suddenness Slayd wondered if his vision had blanked out for a moment. It also bowed, but never once lowered its freakish gaze from Guile’s face.
   “Your presence seems to have driven off our pursuer,” Guile nodded towards the gloom from which they had come, “and for that I thank you. I have business with the Maggot King regarding our Lord’s Heir, whom I have retrieved after many years from the clutches of the Veil.” He yanked Slayd roughly out from behind him, and Slayd could practically feel the Watcher’s eye creep over him. “Will you allow us to pass these borders?”
   For a long moment the creature did not move. Not even its eye so much as twitched, and Slayd imagined that it had turned itself to stone.
   A deep and muffled voice seemed to creep out of the ground all around them. At first it was so quiet Slayd could not make out what it was saying, but it grew in strength until it almost sounded like thunder. “– regarding those, none have heard. You shall pass these borders, but not through the Sacred Groves beyond. Dark Things creep here that even you would do well to avoid. Come. Enter quickly.”
   The Watcher turned and shambled towards the archway into the tower, and Guile towed Slayd quickly along. As the door swung shut behind them, Slayd could hear a heavy snuffling sound again coming from the wooded shadows outside.
   Inside the tower it was cold and damp, and once the door had swung shut behind them they were plunged into total darkness. It smelled of mildew and rotting straw. Slayd clutched for Guile’s hand, but found only clammy stone. A shrill jangle of metal to his left made him freeze to the spot.
   A tiny pinprick of light flared into existence. Guile materialized in the light, holding a hooded lantern he had just pulled from the wall. He stood next to the Watcher, its single bulbous eye glinting in the light.
   Slayd hustled over to Guile’s side, keeping a wide berth around the tall creature.
   Guile chuckled. “Perhaps it should have been best to keep you in the darkness, little one. I doubt you will like what there is to see.”
   Slayd blinked. “What do you mean?”
   “Look around.” Guile raised the hood of the lantern to spread its glow to its fullest extent, illuminating the tower with its dim, faltering light.
   The clammy stone of the walls and floor were slick with algae, mottled and brown. To his right, the stone rose steeply into a flight of jagged, spiraling stairs. But it certainly was not the stairs that made Slayd start and grab again for Guile’s hand, slippery and dangerous though they looked.
   Ringed in alcoves all around the wall were huge, hulking bodies. The nearest one towered over Slayd by over four times his height. No features adorned its heavy face save a massive toothed mouth, stretching the entire breadth of the thing’s head. If it hadn’t been for the obvious movement of the rise and fall of its chest, Slayd would have though it a statue. But statues certainly do not breathe.
   He shivered. “What are they?” he whispered, painfully aware of how much his voice echoed and wavered in the vast empty space above them.
   “They are Speakers. It is one of them that we heard in the clearing. They give voice to the Watchers.”
   Slayd glanced warily over at the masked monstrosity that had brought them inside, standing silently at the foot of the steps. There were more of them? Guile didn’t seem bothered by either kind of creature. He turned to the Watcher, careful to lower the hood of the lantern away from its twitching eye. “We follow at your discretion, Watcher. Lead on.”
   The creature said nothing and turned quickly to the slick stairs. Its heavy arms seemed to melt into the steps as it ascended. Guile took Slayd’s hand and followed.
   As they climbed the stairs, the lantern Guile held swung to and fro, intermittently illuminating one side or the other of the tower’s stone walls. Slayd followed as close as he dared, taking care to avoid the innermost edge of the staircase. It was completely open, with not even a railing or a guard rope or anything of that fashion to keep someone from falling off of the slippery edge.
   Slayd began to count the ragged steps as they climbed, but by the time he reached a thousand he gave up. Looking up past the Watcher, he could see from the swinging light that there were still many more to go. He didn’t even want to think about looking back. And down.
   The light from the lantern began to sputter, and Guile paused. The Watcher came to a halt a few steps ahead of them, swaying slightly on his long hands. Guile tapped the oil reservoir. “I should have known. These never last very long.” He lowered the hood.
   Slayd was quite dismayed. “But how will we see where we are going?”
   Guile said nothing and clasped the hood down against the dying light. They were plunged into darkness.
   But… Slowly Slayd realized a faint blue light was illuminating the stairwell from a few steps above them. The Watcher resumed his shambling climb, and they passed the first of their new sources of light. Tall, narrow windows slit the tower’s outer wall, and filtering in from them streamed pale blue light. As they passed, Slayd peered out of the narrow slit.
   They had risen far above the thick canopy of trees, and a deep indigo sky spread out over the world. And there were stars in the sky. Oh, the stars! Bright, blue, and unfamiliar stars, all over the sky and clustered in strange and dense constellations. Not a wisp of a cloud shielded their cold glow. They shined with an unearthly glory he had never seen the likes of anywhere before. His breath caught in his throat. He was beginning to think there was nothing beautiful at all in this wretched nightmare world, but these ethereal stars looked like they belonged to a wonderful dream.
   Guile yanked on his hand. “You can gape out of windows all you want when we reach the top. We are almost there. Come on, Slayd.”
   Slayd reluctantly obeyed. It was but a few dozen steps and a handful of windows later when the staircase came to an abrupt end. A heavy wooden door blocked their way, and the Watcher shoved it open. They entered a large circular room, lit by the glittering stars that shone through what might have been a hundred narrow windows. It was sparsely furnished with simple chairs, a table, and a well-made bed. The steps continued upwards on the other side of the room, making Slayd wonder just how tall the tower really was. Empty alcoves like those at the bottom of the tower lay in between the windows, and Slayd breathed a small sigh of relief. The less he saw of silent, hulking monsters, the better.
   The heavy door slammed shut behind them with a loud thud! and Slayd was startled to see that it had been closed by one of the Speakers. Slayd had been oblivious to its presence as it followed along behind them on the stairs. He tried vainly to ignore it.
   Guile was speaking quietly to the Watcher, whose eye flicked back and forth from Guile to Slayd and back again. Slayd felt self-conscious and a little annoyed because he couldn’t make out what they were saying, and it probably was about him.
   Since he couldn’t do anything about their conversation (and he didn’t want to interrupt, after all), he made for the nearest window to see – as they say – what he could see.
   He found himself gazing out into the forest from which they had come. From this height, it looked like a yawning mass of rustling black far below him, and he wrinkled his nose at it. I certainly am glad we are no longer down there right now, he mused, although I dread going back out into it. Monsters in alcoves or no, I do hope the Watcher allows us to stay here a while! …Even if they do unnerve me.
   He stared further out to the horizon and spotted the greenish haze of the dimly glowing mist that hovered over the lake. He fancied he could see a silvery glint from the reflective etchings on the temples at the shore, but he knew that it was probably too far away for that to be true.
   A rumble of thunder murmured up from the forest below them, and Slayd pulled away from the window. Thunder on a clear night?
   He looked over at Guile, who was still with the Watcher. The Speaker stood next to them, and its huge mouth was moving. Slayd realized it wasn’t thunder he had heard, but its voice. He began to decipher its words, “- escort will arrive on the morrow. Meet him on the balcony in the morning. He will bring transport for the Heir and his guardian. Rest for the night. It is here we part.”
   Guile bowed to the two monsters, and the Speaker thrust open the door. They retreated back down the stairs from where they came, leaving Guile and Slayd alone.
   “…Why does everyone call me the ‘Heir’?” Slayd mumbled.
   “Because you are the Heir. You are far more important than you think you are, Slayd.”
   Slayd shook his head. “I don’t know where everyone keeps getting these ideas from, but I’m certainly not anybody’s Heir. Not anybody from this place, at any rate.” He waved a hand to the windows looking out on the starlit world.
   Guile shook his head. “And how would you know? You admit you do not remember much about yourself.”
   “That may be,” Slayd said slowly, unsure whether or not he was saying too much. “But I think that sometimes I should be feeling at least some sort of recognition. But… Something about this is all wrong.”
   “What do you mean?” Guile’s voice was incredibly soft.
   “It… it just feels that way. I don’t belong here. It doesn’t feel right for me to be here. I…” He paused, wondering how Guile would take what he was about to say. “I think you might have the wrong person, Guile.”
   A short laugh came from his guardian. “Oh? And how came you by that conclusion?”
   “Well… you said it yourself that I don’t look like the Slayd you remember.”
   “Of course you don’t. Your eyes are different, your hair is different, and your clothes are certainly different. Physically, you seem to have regressed back to a child while you were in the Temple of Mirrors. But you are still Slayd. You belong here.”
   He shook his head. “But I don’t belong here. I may not remember a whole lot about myself, but I sure do know that I don’t belong here. I think maybe that place you took me out of had more people in it, and you took the wrong one. I don’t even think my name is Slayd! I just… I think you picked the wrong person by mistake.”
   Guile just looked at him with narrowed eye sockets. He wordlessly handed Slayd another package out of his satchel, and sat down at the small table near the center of the room. Slayd sighed and chewed mechanically on his meal Guile gave him, wondering if he’d ever learn to predict Guile’s mood swings, or to just keep his own mouth shut.
   Frankly, he thought to himself, I hope I don’t have to stay long enough in this world to find out. There must be some sort of way back, if there is a way in.
   He cautiously glanced over at Guile’s brooding face, wondering if he was doing that uncanny mind reading thing he sometimes seemed to do. But Guile showed no sign of knowing Slayd’s thoughts. His head was leaned on one hand, his empty sockets staring out one of the windows.
   “…So now what do we do?”
   “Now we rest. There’s a bed, go lie down. Sleep.”
   Slayd sighed, but obediently did as he was told.
   Despite the fact that they had walked for miles that day, his sleep was restless. Images of lurking horrors on wooded paths kept appearing behind his eyelids every time he closed his eyes, and he tossed and turned. He awoke once to find Guile sitting in one of the windowsills, flexing his claws and hissing angrily under his breath.
   “- right about one thing, though. He’s not the same. Not like he used to be. You thought this would be easy? Think again. He may never be the same. Then he will be useless to him, won’t he?” His long fingers twitched tight in a grip that drew blood from his palm.
   “Or what if he does return to normal? Would that be worse? What he did before, he can do again. Then what will you do? Kill him? A part of him already believes he is dead.” He snarled low in his throat, and Slayd couldn’t understand the rest of his mutterings.
   He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will the morning to come.
   The morning came, but not with a sunrise. Slayd awoke to Guile prodding him sharply in the ribs. “Get up, Slayd. I will not miss our ride to the Maggot King’s palace because you decided to oversleep.”
   Slayd rubbed blearily at his eyes. “But it’s not even light yet. It must still be early?”
   Guile threw a package of food on the bed. “I have no idea of what you are talking about. It is already late morning. I have been up to the balcony, and while our escort has not yet arrived, our ride has. Hurry up.”
   Slayd crammed the last bit of food in his mouth and hastened after Guile, who was already mounting the flight of stairs.
   A swift and howling wind whipped by them when Guile opened the door at the top of the stairs. The stone floor sloped slightly downwards towards a ledge unguarded by any sort of railing, and a dim grey fog blotted out the sky. Or maybe it was the sky; Slayd couldn’t tell.
   But Slayd soon forgot about the sky and stared at the opposite end of the open balcony. A very large creature was resting near the edge, and while the creature looked familiar to Slayd, its size was not.
   It was an immense shiny blue wasp, about the size of a rhinoceros (or probably was, because Slayd had never seen a real rhinoceros, and he only remembered seeing pictures of them). The wasp twitched its wings and turned its head to look straight at Slayd. Slayd felt a little shiver of glee run up his spine. He loved insects and all kinds of crawly things, but this one was nothing like any wasp Slayd knew of (probably because it was so large).
   Slayd stepped over to it and extended a careful hand. The wasp wiggled its enormous antennae at him and chattered a greeting. Slayd’s smile grew into a huge grin.
   It was then that Slayd noticed a fancy golden saddle of sorts attached to the abdomen of the wasp, with several places on it for sitting. It was etched with all kinds of swirling patterns, and Slayd could even see the glint of jewels embedded in the design. The wasp must belong to royalty, if it was equipped with such a splendid saddle.
   Guile ignored the wasp. He glanced from one side of the balcony to the other, and snarled under his breath. “I smell depravity.”
   Slayd blinked. “… What? I don’t smell anything.”
   Guile shook his head, and pointed to a few leaves being whipped around by the wind. Slayd frowned. What was so special about some leaves?
   But as he watched, the leaves spun in the air like a small whirlwind. A fly buzzed by his ear and was swept into the miniature tornado, followed quickly by another. Slayd looked around to see where they might have come from, but didn’t see anything other than the cold grey sky. More flies were beginning to gather in the growing whirlwind, which was spinning faster and faster. The faster it spun around, the more flies gathered in it until there was a huge, reeling swarm of blue and green flies, twirling around in front of his eyes. The buzzing of the swarm grew so loud Slayd clapped his hands over his ears, and the cloud of flies began to take on a shape then – a vaguely human form.
   The flies almost looked as if they were melting into each other, they were spinning so fast. Their wings were deafening, and with a suddenly loud boom that sounded like a single stroke of thunder, the swarm flew away from the human form, revealing a man.
   Or he was sort of a man. Very dull grey skin almost made him seem to be made of velvet. Bulbous, round eyes glanced from Guile to Slayd and back again. His stiff hair stuck out in short backward-pointing spikes, and he had a small grin playing about on his face.
   “Guile! A pleasure to see you again in this part of Dehalen. I trust you have been well while you have been away? It has been very long. And I have heard rumors.” The man cocked his head to one side and took both of Guile’s hands in his. “Such rumors have I heard.”
   Guile made no response, except a narrowing of his eye sockets. It didn’t seem to faze the man at all though, and he merrily shook Guile’s hand until his gaze ran back over to Slayd.
   “Oh! And this must be Slayd! How different you look from the last time I saw you! Ah, but I still recognize some part of you. Some things will never change. How do you do? Well, I hope.” He let go of Guile’s hand and latched on to Slayd’s, kissing the back of it and smiling at him as if he were the most important thing in the world.
   “You probably don’t remember me if what I hear rumors of is true, but I remember you. Oh yes, I remember very well. My name is Jyrr. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance again.”
   Slayd smiled nervously at him, wondering if there were any normal people in this world at all. “I’m pleased to meet you Jyrr.”
   “No, no, it is I who am pleased. Indeed, please accept my humblest and most earnest welcome to the Maggot King’s realm. I am his adopted son, and prince of his kingdom. But of course, you will get a more lavish and much more acceptable welcome once you arrive at the king’s palace, I guarantee it.” He nodded merrily, partly to Slayd and partly to himself.
   Guile shoved Slayd aside and stood with crossed arms, staring down his flat nose at Jyrr. “Get on with it. Are we going or no?”
   Jyrr bowed a little, and his smile faltered just for a brief moment. “We go, my dear friend, of course.”
   He turned to the wasp, which crouched down as low to the ground as it could and parted its wings a little, wriggling its antennae affectionately at Jyrr. He mounted with ease on the golden saddle, and held out a hand for either Slayd or Guile to climb up onto its back.
   Slayd was delighted. He never thought he would get the chance to ride on a giant wasp, because such things didn’t really ever happen to anyone (or at least he had thought that they didn’t). But before he could take Jyrr’s offered hand, Guile brushed past him and climbed on the wasp first. With a sideways glance at Jyrr that was decidedly less than friendly, he offered his own hand to Slayd. He hesitated for just a moment before accepting Guile’s hand and climbing into the spot on the saddle just in front of Guile. If he had thought about it, Slayd would have wondered about what might have happened between Jyrr and Guile to have caused Guile to dislike him so much, but such thoughts were far from his mind. He was sitting on top of a giant wasp, getting ready to fly! The shiver running up his spine returned, and he felt butterflies turn in his stomach (hopefully they weren’t real butterflies).
   Jyrr slid forward near the neck of the creature and grabbed its antennae, which it had obligingly turned backwards to serve as reins. The wasp’s wings began to beat slowly at first, but steadily they beat faster and faster. The humming wind from its wings swept around Slayd’s hair, and he felt very excited. But what if he fell off? He didn’t know how to ride a wasp at all! He’d never even ridden on a pony!
   As if in answer to his worry, he felt Guile’s hands slip around his waist, keeping him secure. He relaxed for a moment, but then he remembered what he had overheard Guile muttering to himself the night before. Could he really trust him?
   The wasp’s humming wing beats grew louder, and Slayd could feel the wasp’s body lift slowly off from the balcony. It rose a few feet off of the stone, and then suddenly flew off the ledge and dropped down, almost flying sideways and dipping low towards the trees far below them. It then swept upwards, shooting past the balcony and to the top of the tower. There it hovered at the level a wide alcove just below the top overhang, and Slayd could see a Watcher sitting silent in its shadow. Jyrr raised a hand in farewell, and the Watcher returned the gesture.
   Jyrr tossed a grin over his shoulder at Guile and Slayd. “We aim for the palace of the Maggot King, my long-lost friends!”
   Bucking a little underneath them, the wasp flew out over the vast expanse of the dark forest below, towards the faint and faded mountains beyond.


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