Chapter 9: The Maggot King.

  Their ride lasted much shorter than Slayd had hoped it would, but it was still for hours and hours that they flew. The cold skies around them changed little as their flight went on, and Slayd assumed that this cloudy grey was the closest he would ever get to a bright sky in this world.
   But that was not important right now. What mattered was their ride was coming to an end.
   “We are near the eastern border of the Maggot King’s realm,” called Jyrr over his shoulder. “It will not be long now.”
   The rugged hills and mountains that had been in the distance when Slayd had been at the top of the tower were hardly distant anymore, and loomed huge and silent just ahead of them. Beside one of the closest mountains which they were quickly approaching, there was a glimmer of gold shining from a valley near its base. For a while it looked as if they were going to pass right over it, but the giant wasp bucked gently in the air and began to hover, and then spiraled rapidly downwards towards the golden shine below.
   The glimmer grew larger as it seemed to come up to meet them, and Slayd could see now that it was a beautiful golden palace, with glistening turrets and towers and pillars, and a silvery thin line running around it suggested that there was a moat surrounding the palatial grounds. It was immense - the Maggot King must live in splendor indeed.
   They approached a wide platform on top of one of the tallest of the golden towers, where several people were scurrying around below, one of them waving in complicated hand signals towards Jyrr and the giant wasp (probably giving directions on where and how to land). Jyrr gestured back at them, and they slowly descended to make a gentle landing. Jyrr hopped quickly off of the wasp and made quick and quiet talk with the person that had signaled them down, occasionally tossing a hand back towards the wasp to indicate that he was talking about his passengers.
   He then strode back over to Guile and Slayd, who were still waiting on the giant wasp. “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but I’m afraid the preparations for your arrival are a bit off-schedule. The king had so wanted to welcome you himself, but there is a banquet to be organized and welcoming ceremonies for him to attend to.” He shook his head and smiled apologetically. “But never worry, it will not be long and you shall meet the king.”
   With that, he held out a hand to help Slayd down, which he accepted warily. Guile ignored Jyrr when he offered a hand to him as well, instead spreading his wings for a moment to flap down to the ground. Jyrr didn’t seem to notice that Guile was being rude, though. Instead, he just smiled at them both, and turned towards a great staircase that led down from the landing tower.
   “Follow me, if you would, dear guests. I shall attempt my best to entertain and engage you until such time as the preparations for your grand welcoming are finished. Shall I give you the Grand Tour?” He offered his arm to Slayd, but Guile scowled and grabbed Slayd’s hand roughly, glaring at Jyrr with a very unpleasant look in his eyeless sockets.
   Jyrr still didn’t seem to notice Guile’s hostility. He just shrugged and began to stroll down the steps, babbling on about something having to do with the palace’s architecture and design, but Slayd wasn’t listening. He was worrying over Guile, particularly that he might do Bad Things to Jyrr. That angry spark in Guile’s expression did not look like it would be idle.
   The palace really was extravagantly beautiful. Nearly every ornate piece of furniture was gilded in gold, as were the pillars, floors, walls, and even the ceiling, except in places where intricate and breathtaking murals had been painted. They depicted everything from insects and Glimmourings to surreal figures, massive portraits to expansive landscapes. And each one had a lengthy history that went with it as well, because Jyrr would pause at each one and begin a detailed story about who had made the mural, where they had come from, when they had painted it, how long it took, what kind of impression they were trying to capture –
   But that was usually where Guile interrupted him by snorting dismissively and walking away. And Jyrr would always cheerily cut off his description and lead them on down the next massive hall - or courtyard, or ballroom, or whichever of the many rooms and passages that were next on the Grand Tour that Jyrr was taking them on.
   There were a lot of people in the palace. Most of them had those same bulbous, round eyes that Jyrr had, and there was always something odd about the way that they moved or spoke, or just something about their presence that made it painfully obvious to Slayd that they were most certainly not human. He didn’t quite know what they were, but it didn’t seem to matter, anyway. Each and every glance directed Slayd’s way always lingered a little too long, and each quick flash of a smile or the brief widening of eyes alerted Slayd to the uneasy fact that they seemed to know a good deal more about himself than even he did.
   Each room they passed through made Guile more and more irritable. His grip on Slayd’s hand had slowly but steadily tightened every time Jyrr smiled at Slayd, or talked to him, or even looked in his general direction. Slayd tried to regard it all as Guile just being over-protective, but it still made him very nervous.
   That, and his hand was starting to hurt. He tugged it loose from Guile’s grip, which made him turn and narrow his eyeless sockets at Slayd, but Slayd tried to ignore the hostile look. He whispered, so as not to interrupt Jyrr’s babbling.
   “You’re hurting my hand, Guile. Don’t grip so tight.” Guile just snorted at him, and stared off blankly in another direction. He didn’t take Slayd’s hand back, though.
   Slayd remained silent after that. He hazarded a guess that he’d made Guile angry, which seemed to be a rather easy thing to do. Slayd assumed that he would get an earful of Guile’s irritation when they were alone, after this banquet or reception or whatever this ceremony turned out to be. He sighed, and hoped that the welcoming would be very long indeed.
   “The Judgment of Thrassis.”
   Slayd’s ears pricked at the name. Jyrr was gesturing to a painting that looked eerily familiar. A massive stone dais was adorned with a white pillar, and chains were embedded in the painted marble. A bloodied man was bound to the pillar, and shadowy figures carrying torches and whips surrounded the edges of the painting.
   Jyrr was staring, almost enraptured, at the piece of art, talking a little slower and a little quieter than usual.
   “He would have made a beautiful trophy, I must say. Wouldn’t you… Guile?” A smile tugged at the corners of the man’s mouth, and Slayd risked a glance at Guile’s face, wondering what Jyrr was hinting at.
   But Guile’s face showed no sign of emotion. He grunted at Jyrr with the least amount of enthusiasm anyone could have mustered, and held his gaze until the other man looked away.
   “No matter,” Jyrr said, his usual pace of speaking returning. “There is more to see than old records in the form of art on the walls of a hallway. In fact –”
   Jyrr was interrupted when a tall, serious-looking man came up close to him and muttered something in his ear. Jyrr nodded at him, and the serious man turned right around and marched away.
   Jyrr smiled at Guile and Slayd. “Well, it appears our little Grand Tour will have to be cut a tiny bit short. The preparations for your welcoming have finished, and the king eagerly awaits your presence in the Great Hall. Please, right this way, if you will.”
   He offered his arm again to Slayd, which he of course didn’t accept because Guile had already grabbed his hand again, harder than before. Slayd winced but didn’t say anything.
   Jyrr led them down another wide hall and to a curtained archway, which opened into a very huge, very extravagant room. They stood just outside of it, waiting - Slayd assumed - for some sort of signal or permission they needed to enter. Despite the tapestries, Slayd could still peer inside this magnificent room from the corner, and it was the best one yet in the palace. It had high ceilings painted intricately like a starlit sky, and fireflies flitting about near the top. Long tables with white tablecloths were laden with so much delicious-smelling food, Slayd was surprised that they could still stand under all that weight. The cups and plates and utensils on the table were all made of gold, and each napkin was ringed with a golden clasp. High-backed, oaken chairs with auburn-threaded seats were arranged around the tables, and hundreds of candles lined the walls, making the gilded room bright and merry.
   There were hundreds of people already inside, talking and laughing and smiling together. They looked familiar and yet at the same time alien to Slayd, who again had butterflies in his stomach.
   He noticed that he was peering in at the very front of the room, which was raised on a little dais, a step or two above the rest of the room. On the dais was a very, very wide throne, again gilt in gold, with carved arm rests and red velvet cushions to sit on. From his view of the room just outside the archway Slayd stood, wondering where the king could be. This was obviously his throne, but he didn’t see anyone commanding the attention of the crowd, at least not yet.
   But he didn’t have to wait for long, because on the opposite end of the room big wooden double doors swung open, and the crowd grew instantly silent. They parted down the middle of the room, leaving a wide path, and all eyes - including Slayd’s - were fixed at the now-open double doors.
   Four armored men carrying pikes and walking at rigid attention entered first, with an air of great importance. Following close behind them was easily the largest man Slayd had ever seen in his life. He was at least six-and-a-half feet tall, and as big around as five men. His head was small and bald, with tiny black eyes, and what looked to be tusks growing from his nose. His milky-colored bulk rolled out around him in layers as he walked. The only clothing that the man wore was a long, trailing cloak, made of the same red velvet that was on his throne. It was lined with white satin ribbons, which fluttered as he walked.
   Despite his immense size, however, he did not move clumsily, just slowly. He followed the four guardsmen to the throne, where two guards stood rigidly at attention on either side. The huge man settled himself onto the throne with an air of sovereign dignity, and smiled at the people, who broke into long and respectful applause.
   This must be the Maggot King, Slayd thought to himself.
   Indeed it was. Slayd did not know it at the time, but the Maggot King was the most powerful king of all the realms, excluding one (and that was ruled by a queen, not a king). His kingdom was the largest, both in land and in subjects, who loved him dearly. Not because he was a benevolent ruler, although he might have been called something of that sort if it had crossed anyone’s mind, but they thought other things more important than generosity or kindness.
   He had power. Great power. But not in a way of politics or wealth, though. It was a magical power, a honing of the spirit and mind that enabled him to do incredible things. He was more magic than man, some said, and that was definitely saying something, because there certainly was a lot of man to the Maggot King.
   But Slayd didn’t know any of this yet. Of course, he would be told later, by Jyrr, who would tell him an awful lot over the next few days.
   But at the moment, Slayd was just watching the Maggot King and paying very close attention, because now he was speaking.
   “My most honored guests and most worthy subjects,” he began in a deep, booming voice that carried easily throughout the expansive room, “Tonight, this memorable night, we have the pleasure of welcoming two noble guests to our great kingdom.
   “As I am sure all of you are already aware,” (although Slayd was not), “many years have gone by without any sign of the heir to the great and noble Lich King Moroloth, our savior and most worthy hero, who summoned the Grigora and conquered our fears. His heir has not been seen, not since he was lost to the mists of the dark Lake Khorakh that haunts us beyond our western borders.”
   Here he paused, and Slayd could see that there were several people in his captive audience that looked quickly down and away, as if trying to ward off tears that might come.
   The Maggot King continued, “He has long since been lost to us. Many feared he may never return, and some have long lost any hope that our savior’s heir would ever be heard from again.” There was another pause in his speech. Slayd could hear someone in the audience quietly weeping.
   “BUT!” The Maggot King suddenly bellowed, “I have most joyful news! For the heir of the mighty Moroloth has returned!” He arose from his throne then, and he raised his arms out, taking in the whole audience. They cheered at this wonderful announcement, although Slayd still didn’t quite understand why it was such a big deal.
   Then the curtain was thrown back and all eyes turned to the archway - and to Slayd, and suddenly he felt very small and afraid and very, very out of place. He knew that this “Moroloth’s heir” that they had been talking about was supposed to be him, but he had no idea of the importance that this entire people placed upon him, until now.
   He wanted to hide. But he couldn’t hide, because right then he was being pushed out through the door and onto the dais and people were clapping and staring at him, and he was very bewildered by it all. He stood dumbfounded as the Maggot King extended a hand to him (he didn’t dare refuse it), and raised it as high as he could, which wasn’t very high because Slayd was very small compared to the Maggot King. The crowd cheered again, this time loud enough that the candle holders along the walls began to rattle with the sound. Slayd began to feel almost panicked. He’d never liked dealing with crowds, not ever, and he had the overwhelming urge to run away. He could feel his heart pounding behind the cage in his chest, and the butterflies were threatening to tear open his stomach and fly away –
   But then Guile was there. Slayd felt his clawed hand on his shoulder, and he glanced over to see a small and gentle smile playing over Guile’s face. Slayd suddenly felt all right again, and the panicked feeling disappeared.
   The Maggot King lowered Slayd’s hand and motioned for the crowd to listen again. In almost an instant they were silent, eagerly straining to hear every word their king was going to say.
   “My most honored guests and most worthy subjects,” he began again, “tonight is a most memorable occasion indeed. Yet there is sad news along with our newfound joy. For as you can all see before me, he is changed. He has undoubtedly passed through many trials in the years he has been lost to us. He has the appearance of a child. His memory has left him, but this shall pass. If he does not remember this kingdom, it is because he has traveled beyond death and life, and into the unknown realms.”
   He paused to look at Slayd for a moment, who was looking very, very confused. He continued, in a slightly softer voice, “You are eternally welcome in my kingdom, heir of Moroloth. My people are your people, bound by honor and blood to the savior of us all.”
   He turned back to the crowd. “We hold a great banquet in his honor tonight! Let us begin the feast!” And he sat down.


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