Chapter 15: A Cold and Quiet Welcome.

  Hours more they traveled upstream, without a word spoken between them. They passed the world slowly and silently on the back of the tiny creek. Wild, green-grey fields passed them by, with only the sound of their rustling grass to hail their passing.
   The Ferryman stopped but once to allow Guile and Slayd a chance to stretch their legs on the bank. They had found a vine with large purple fruit growing on it, and Guile said it was safe to eat. It had been the first food Slayd had eaten since the previous night. They gathered up a few to take with them, and continued on in silence.
   A forest bleak and quiet slid in around them, and just as quietly slid away. As the trees grew sparse, Slayd could see the looming mountains grow ever larger ahead of them, and soon he was craning his neck to look up at the peaks. The tiny creek widened into a sluggish river that cut a deep and narrow canyon right through the heart of the mountains. But even here the only sounds he heard were the soft breathing of the Ferryman’s passengers and the occasional splash of water along the side of the boat.
   The steep walls of the mountain pass made Slayd uncomfortable and claustrophobic, so he was quite relieved when the mountains finally leveled into foothills, and the foothills dwindled into a wide, flat plain. In the dulling monotony of brown grasses, the hazy grey day melted into an equally hazy night as the boat drifted down the river. Slayd curled up on the bottom of the boat, using his history book as a pillow. He fell asleep with Guile’s eyeless gaze watching over him, and the Ferryman watching over Guile.
   When he awoke, his relief from the previous evening didn’t seem to follow him into the next morning. Hushed marshes had crept in alongside their boat, but strain as he might, Slayd couldn’t hear the calls of marsh birds or even the buzzing of the ever-present insects. The silence of everything around them made him even more anxious than the mountain pass. He wished that something – anything - around them would make a sound louder than a whisper, or the slip of the pole in the water. But nothing moved.
   Slayd timidly looked over at Guile, who was still brooding. He shifted in his seat to try to get his attention, even though he was afraid that he was still dangerously angry with him.
   Guile glanced up from his pensive staring at the water and turned his gaze towards him. Slayd stammered silently and couldn’t seem to find words to say, now that he had Guile’s attention.
   “What, Slayd?” Guile hissed.
   Slayd swallowed hard. He whispered, “Is there anything but silence and stillness here? I feel as if we are the only living things for miles, and yet I feel trapped and enclosed, like I’m being watched every moment.”
   Guile nodded. “The Spider Queen has eyes everywhere. After a fashion she is watching us right now, if only from a distance.”
   That made Slayd squirm in his seat. “Is there nothing living here?”
   Guile beamed laughingly at Slayd and turned away. He whispered back, over his shoulder, “There are plenty of the living in her kingdom. But there is only death awaiting them here.”
   Slayd’s skin crawled, and he shivered against the still air. He clutched his pendant tight against his chest and tried to change the subject. “Umm… Guile? You had said that you would tell me what happened before. With… with Jyrr.”
   Guile looked back at Slayd suddenly, his eye sockets narrowed menacingly. Slayd fell off of his seat in surprise and recoiled on the floor of the boat. But Guile sighed and flexed his fingers again.
   “…When I met Jyrr for the first time, he was but a squirming larva, just rescued from being half-drowned, and hideously ugly. But over the years and as he grew, he acquired a charisma about him. He certainly grew to fit everyone’s expectations of him as a prince, regardless of whether or not he was adopted.
   “There was a period of time when I made few visits to the Maggot Kingdom, and it was during that time that you were sired. It was many years before I met Jyrr again, but when I finally did so he was as charming as he is now - if not more so. Moroloth had brought you and me along with him on a visit to the Maggot King, to give him that golden pin that you now hold in your pendant. It was intended then to serve as a reminder, a symbol of his vow to assist in Moroloth’s revival if and when he chose to embrace his mortality.”
   He paused here, as if he were collecting his memories. “During their conference with each other, Jyrr was assigned to show us around the palace and keep us occupied until Moroloth was ready to leave.
   “Jyrr took an instant liking to you. Many did, actually. Perhaps it was because of your privileged position, perhaps it was a side effect of the magic used to create you – I’m not really sure, but you have a tendency to attract people to you. You were confident and yet fragile, arrogant but needing guidance. Many fell under your unwitting spell, and Jyrr was no exception. He decided that he wanted you - whether or not you belonged to Moroloth - and he began to court you by giving you whatever you desired. He showered his attentions and charm on you… spared no expense.”
   Again Guile paused. He inspected Slayd’s expression, as if searching for any sign that this was familiar. He nodded slightly, satisfied with the vague recognition that he saw.
   “It worked of course, but a little too well. I did not take his overtures towards you with grace. When I managed to get him alone, I threatened him with violence if his intentions towards you were less than innocent. Of course, he did not believe I would do any harm to him due to his privileged position in the Maggot King’s court, and he continued seducing you unabated.”
   Slayd nodded slowly, and refused to meet Guile’s eyes. He felt guilty, although he didn’t know why. He could almost recollect the feelings he had that night, and part of him wanted to say that he really and truly did remember something. “Had… had there been an important ceremony or something like that while we were there?”
   Guile nodded. “There had been, yes, in the early part of our visit to his realm. Tell me what it was.”
   Slayd scrunched up his face in concentration. Things weren’t as muddy in his mind as they had been, although most of the images still didn’t make sense. But a few of them were beginning to string together a solid memory in his brain. Now if only he could catch the end of it… “I… I think it was a funeral. A royal funeral. The Maggot King’s real son had died, is that right? I remember Jyrr being sad.”
   Guile grunted. “I care not about Jyrr’s emotional state. In any event, he did not heed my warning. One night you were away with Jyrr as you had grown accustomed to being, and I was wandering restless through the palace halls. I heard, or felt, a scream – I am not sure which - and from the voice I knew it was you. Following the sound of your voice, I tracked you to that same stair that you were with Jyrr just a few hours ago.”
   Slayd flinched. The stair now had a double memory in his mind now, and he didn’t like what he was starting to remember. He shook his head to try to drop the string of memory in his mind, but it refused to go away now that it had materialized.
   Guile pressed on, his voice even and emotionless. “I found him over you, his spiked legs burrowed under your skin, his body pressed into yours. You were lying in a pool of your own blood, and he was licking the lacerations he had gashed into your flesh, reveling in your agony.”
   Slayd winced at Guile’s vivid imagery and whispered, “I don’t want to hear this, Guile…” He could remember this part on his own now. He could feel Jyrr’s hot breath on his neck, his blades under his flesh, his tongue on his skin. He felt himself getting sick. He sunk off his seat and to the bottom of the boat, holding his mouth closed with his hands and trying not to retch.
   Guile just watched him cringe, watched him remember. Slayd recovered slowly and looked up at Guile, whose emotionless face regarded him indifferently. Slayd managed a hoarse whisper. “Why did he do that, Guile? I never understood…”
   Guile looked away from Slayd and stared out over the water. “That is partly the way of the Maggot King’s people, Slayd. I believe I have already told you that his people have a fondness for their dead and dying. Pain, suffering and death are very much a part of their romance. From what I have seen of others in their kingdom, that love and passion is mutual. But Jyrr didn’t care whether you wanted it or not. And that makes all the difference between something beautiful and something grotesque. Jyrr is a grotesque creature, Slayd, no matter what his charms.”
   Slayd nodded, still sick to his stomach. “But… you speak of him as if he were still alive.”
   Guile laughed then - a harsh, angry laugh that made Slayd wish he hadn’t said anything. “Oh he is most certainly dead, Slayd. At the moment. I do not wish to keep him inside me forever, though. I will vomit him out like the refuse he is, and I will put him back together. I have a use for his sorry hide yet.”
   Slayd didn’t ask him what that use was. He imagined it was a Very Bad Thing, and he didn’t want to think about it. He shuddered, and fell silent.
   The marsh that they had been floating through was steadily getting less and less marshy, and Slayd began to see grey, soggy sandbars heaving themselves up out of the water. They frequently blocked the way of the boat, and the Ferryman had to readjust his navigation more and more often. It was almost as if the shoals of sand were trying to prevent them from going deeper into the Spider Queen’s realm.
   Finally the Ferryman ran the boat up against a long and shallow sandbar. He nodded to Guile, who bowed. “Thank you for your kindness. Will you be returning to the Maggot Kingdom?”
   The Ferryman shook his head once, slowly. Guile did not ask him where he was going next.
   Guile held out a stiffened hand. “Gather your book, Slayd. We go on foot from here.”
   He obeyed and took his hand reluctantly. Guile pulled him onto the sandbar and snatched his hand away as soon as he was sure he still had his balance. He inclined his head again to the Ferryman, who returned the gesture and pulled away from the sandbar. The boat floated slowly back the way they had come, leaving Guile and Slayd alone together in the marsh.
   Slayd watched the Ferryman go, wishing he could have stayed with him in the boat. It certainly seemed safer there. But Guile did not pause or even look back. Instead he spread his wings halfway open (to keep balance on the unstable ground, I would imagine) and continued heading upstream, or what would have been upstream if the marsh water all around them hadn’t slowed to a standstill. Slayd shivered a little, but tried to shrug it off as best he could and followed along behind Guile.
   As they waded through cold, stagnant water, the marsh gave way to wet sand. Here the grasses didn’t grow. Instead bare, white skeletons of trees jutted towards the sky like dead men’s bones pleading with their creator.
   The trees were long since dead and rotted, with just their white cores and a few straggling branches left for ugly black birds to perch on; the first life that Slayd had seen since they had left the Maggot Kingdom. But the ghastly birds made no sound, not even a squawk. They just stared as Guile and Slayd passed by their trees. Slayd could feel their bulging eyes boring into the back of his neck even after they had passed.
   The ground began to harden beneath their feet, and the bare, bleached trees began to have more branches, but they were still as dead as ever and the added branches only made them look uglier to Slayd’s eyes. Patches of mist moved in and out between the skeleton trees and hung, stuck in the air, in a few places. As they passed closer to these places Slayd paused, and saw that the dew from the fog had collected on massive, hair-like cobwebs which stretched from the tree trunks down to the ground. He could see no makers of these webs, and no creatures or things were caught in them; not even leaves or other debris. Guile passed them by unnoticing, and Slayd had to run to catch up with him.
   “How far is it to the Spider Queen?” He asked Guile in a whisper.
   Guile waved a hand vaguely in response. “We are already there, Slayd. She’s everywhere around us. It is only when she is ready to show herself will we arrive at our destination.”
   He seemed satisfied with his own answer, but Slayd was not. Still, he kept silent and didn’t ask Guile to clarify. Guile was already in a foul mood, and Slayd didn’t want to aggravate him needlessly.
   The creepy feeling that he was being watched by unseen eyes grew steadily as they walked, and it was getting so intense that he began to imagine eyes in every dead tree hollow, peering up out of the sand, and blinking down at him from the bleak and colorless sky. But whenever he turned to look for them, he never saw anything other than the cold, dead landscape.
   And it certainly was cold. There was a silent wind blowing, and its chilly fingers of air seemed to reach through Slayd’s clothes and prick at every bit of skin he had. He wished he had something more than his suit jacket to keep him warm. He looked over at Guile whose bare torso made him wince in sympathy, but Guile didn’t seem bothered at all by the chill.
   Cold or no, they trudged on. The trees were becoming taller and thicker, but they still showed no signs of greenery or life. The cobwebs were more prevalent though. They were becoming so thick it was hard to walk between them or around them. On more than one occasion, Guile had to pick Slayd up and fly over a particularly thick patch of cobwebs, but he never bothered flying for long; he always thumped Slayd back down on the ground as soon as they were past the webby obstacle.
   On one such occasion Slayd sighed and whispered, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just fly over this whole cobweb forest?”
   Guile shook his head and folded his wings against his back. “I would rather not draw that much attention to ourselves. Simply because the Spider Queen is expecting us does not mean that we are not in danger moving through her kingdom.”
   Slayd sighed wearily and pouted. Guile stopped in his tracks and turned to glare at him. “I am not aerial transport at your beck and call, Slayd. My wings are not resilient. Surely you have noticed by now that I never fly for long.”
   He turned and continued on their way. Slayd sulked to himself, but didn’t ask him to fly again.
   The occasional patch of mist had slipped into an ever-present fog. It blocked their view of the land around them, made the air even colder and clung to Slayd’s clothing like a second wet skin. He could only see barely a few meters ahead, but it didn’t daunt Guile at all. He continued at his same quick pace that Slayd had great difficulty keeping up with. He was cold and tired and very out of breath. His massive tome seemed to get heavier and heavier every step that he took, slowing him down even more. Guile quickly got so far ahead of him he could barely make out his dark form in the haze.
   Finally he gasped, “Guile, please stop! I can’t go on so quickly as you! Please, can we rest for a moment?”
   He heard Guile snort irritably, but he did stop. Slayd struggled to his side before he sat down tiredly on the damp ground and tumbled his book in the sand. He pulled his knees up to his chin and shivered in the cold breeze, wishing to himself that it would stop blowing for just a moment. His stomach kept telling him that it had been since the night before that he had anything to eat, and it was high time he corrected that situation.
   Guile bent to pick up his book. “You should not be so careless with something so important, Slayd. Here, give me your pendant. It will store it for you.”
   Slayd unclasped the relic from around his neck and warily handed it over to Guile. He couldn’t help but notice that Guile flinched when it touched his fingers. He placed the pendant on the center of the book’s cover and whispered spidery words of magic. Thin tendrils of blue light snaked from Guile’s fingers to the pendant, and then wrapped around the book. It glowed briefly and then vanished from sight, leaving just the pendant pulsing in Guile’s hand.
   He handed it back to Slayd quickly. “I will tell you how to retrieve it later.”
   Slayd’s stomach chose that moment to voice its concerns again, and he turned pink in embarrassment. Guile chuckled. “You know, Slayd, I’m still rather irritated with you. But I suppose that can wait. Unfortunately your hunger will have to wait as well. We will not find anything to satiate you here, not until we have an audience with the Spider Queen.”
   He reached a hand to Slayd’s head and stroked his ribbony hair. It made Slayd shake even more than the icy breeze, and Guile coughed a harsh laugh. “Still afraid of me, are you?”
   Slayd squirmed. “Should I not be?”
   “I suppose it doesn’t matter,” he shook his scarred head and wrapped one of his wings around Slayd. “Rest for a moment. We do not want to linger here long.”
   Slayd leaned his head cautiously against Guile’s shoulder and closed his eyes. He tried not to think about the shiny teeth and drooling lips that were hidden in his guardian’s abdomen, and so close to him now.
   Guile only let Slayd rest for a few minutes, but it was enough time. Or at least, it was going to have to be enough. Guile folded his wings back against his own body and pulled Slayd to his feet.
   “We must hurry now, Slayd. The Spider Queen beckons us with silken fingers.” He pointed a finger in the direction that they had been headed in. Slayd saw the dew-drenched cobwebs being blown by the cold breeze, only this time some of them were lifting up and out of the way to rest in the sparse, bare branches of the skeleton trees. They were forming a pathway.
   All of the things that the people of the Maggot Kingdom had said or implied about the dangers of the Spider Queen and her realm came rushing back to Slayd. He got a massive dose of the creepy-crawlies and shook his head, balking at the idea. “I have a Very Bad feeling about this, Guile. I don’t… I don’t think that the Spider Queen is at all very friendly. How do we know she won’t hurt us or even try to kill us?”
   “We would be foolish not to accept her invitation,” Guile said, almost cheerily. Slayd just stared at him.
   Guile took Slayd’s hand and tugged him along, walking briskly along this new path. He couldn’t have cared less that Slayd thought he was going entirely insane. Hadn’t he ever heard the poem about the spider and the fly?
   But Guile knew fully well what he was doing. However, he was still rather annoyed with Slayd, and in his anger he was just cruel enough that he didn’t mind letting Slayd squirm at the thought that they might be walking right into a Very Bad trap.
   As they followed the path, the wind continued to part the cobwebs ahead of them. The sticky webbing fell back to hanging thickly in the trees as soon as they passed by, closing them against the way back. This most certainly made seeing anything around them very difficult. As far as Slayd knew, they might be going around in circles (he certainly felt lost enough).
   Slayd fidgeted as he walked. He still had the ominous feeling that this Spider Queen had no intention of helping them at all, and instead intended for Very Bad Things to happen to them here. But he didn’t try to voice his protests again to Guile, who was pointedly ignoring him now anyway.
   The path parting before them had been steadily sloping downwards for a while, as if they had been on the top of a tall hill and were only now beginning to descend it. Or, Slayd thought to himself, Or we are slowly descending into a deep, dark place. Oh dear… Perhaps we are going underground, or some other place I really do not want to be.
   Slayd wasn’t entirely right, but they were certainly headed to a place very few people ever really wanted to be. They were entering into a deep hollow at the bottom of a ravine. The floor of the hollow was covered in exposed bone-white roots which jutted up from the ground at broken, odd angles. There was no breeze here, only a cold chill that hung still and quiet in the air along with the fog. But despite the fact that there was no wind, the cobwebs in front of them steadily kept parting and closing again behind them.
   And then through the mist, Slayd spotted a glimmer of iridescent color in the trees ahead. He could hear a faint tinkling sound, like a tiny wind chime in a gentle breeze. As they followed the parting of the cobwebs, the fog ahead of them cleared – just a little – and through the haze Slayd could make out the outline of a tall castle up ahead.
   It looked like it was made of glistening crystal. The trees had grown to immense proportions around the castle, looming over it as if they were the twisted hands of an immeasurable spirit of the earth, trying to embrace the crystalline castle. The cobwebs hung from the bare branches of the trees and draped themselves over the towers and turrets, reflecting the light of the crystal in their iridescent silk.
   And suddenly the fog around them condensed so thickly that Slayd could no longer see the castle at all. Guile stopped abruptly and stared, intent, on the patch of fog just ahead of them. Slayd stared too, hoping that he was actually looking for something.
   And indeed, “something” was there. The broken roots just to the side of them suddenly lurched, and two of them jerked up out of the ground. They landed just a few feet from where Guile was standing, but he remained where he was, unflinching. Slayd had jumped back in surprise, but he quickly rushed up to Guile’s back, clutching one of his wings and peering around it.
   The bone-white roots were not roots at all, but long, jointed legs. They belonged to a huge white spider, about the size of a pony (but definitely not as cheery as a pony). The spider heaved its body out of the mist, eight bulbous black eyes staring down Guile and Slayd. Its mandibles moved slowly, as if chewing on its own thoughts for a moment.
   Behind the huge white spider more roots began to move, detaching themselves from the sandy soil and pulling white spider bodies with them. Slayd noticed with growing nervousness that they had been surrounded.
   A hiss coming from all around - and yet nowhere - seemed to penetrate every fiber of Slayd’s being. He could practically see the hackles on the back of Guile’s neck raise up, as if someone had just walked over his grave. Then the first spider spoke in a whispering, willowy voice that seemed to echo from one spider to another, until Slayd wasn’t sure where it really came from at all.
   “Your scent is strong on everything you touch, Bane of Moroloth, you who keeps that which is not yours to keep. You are not welcome here, Bringer of Doom.”
   Guile’s eye sockets narrowed at the spider, but he said nothing. The voice from the spiders paused, and Slayd had the peculiar feeling that someone was feeling all over him without touching him. It made his skin crawl.
   The voice whispered again, “But your presence is intriguing, earnest vagrant. Few wanderers enter this realm without dire motivation, and fewer still are permitted to come as far as you. In you, I catch the presence of a being that is familiar, yet I cannot place the scent… Pray, tell me your name.”
   Guile reached behind him and grabbed Slayd’s hand from clutching his wing and pulled him up to stand beside him. “Surely you remember Moroloth’s heir? We have returned to collect a token, of which I am sure you still keep under your watchful protection.”
   Slayd eyed the white spider in front of Guile warily. Its mandibles were still chewing slowly on the air, and Slayd hoped it wouldn’t try to eat him. Is this the Spider Queen?
   The hissing, willowy voice spoke again. “I do indeed remember the inheritor of Dehalen’s savior. Heir of Moroloth, I bid you a cold and quiet welcome to my kingdom. Indeed, I still hold the symbol of my pledge of loyalty to your sire, and I bid you come and receive it.”
   The spiders parted in front of them like a miracle sea, as did the heavy mist and cobwebs around them. The pony-sized spider that had been in front regarded Slayd with its dark eyes. It wriggled its front legs and then moved fluidly down the path that led towards the crystal castle.
   Slayd looked uncertainly at Guile, who stood there with a merry grin on his face. “What do I do now?” Slayd whispered.
   Guile’s sneer turned almost gleeful. “You go into her parlor, of course.”


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