Chapter 16: Wretched.
Slayd’s eyes grew wide. “I cannot go anywhere without you!” he whispered fiercely. The big white spider had paused its scuttling part way down the aisle of smaller spiders, and had turned to regard Slayd silently.
“Please, Guile, come with me!” There was a hint of desperation in Slayd’s voice.
Guile laughed. “I am not welcome here, Slayd. Remember?”
“Please… I’m too frightened to do anything without you…” Slayd was almost in tears. The thought of leaving Guile, no matter how cruel he seemed to want to be to Slayd, made him frantic and terrified.
But Guile didn’t move. The manic glee on his face was unmistakable, but Slayd couldn’t figure out why he was so happy about this situation.
Not knowing what else to do, Slayd swallowed hard, gathered up as much courage as he knew how to and turned to the big white spider. “Guile is my guardian,” he said in a small and trembling voice, “wherever I go, he is supposed to come with me.”
Another hiss crept around and through Slayd, making shivers run up his spine. But the voice returned. “It will be as you wish, Heir of Moroloth. Yet let it be known that he is still not welcome here, guardian or no. He will not leave you while your presence lingers here, nor venture furtive into corridors uninvited or unseen.”
Slayd nodded nervously to the spider in agreement. “He - he will not leave me.”
Guile smiled to himself, and stepped in front of Slayd. “Perhaps it will allay your concern, perhaps not; I have a small gift for you, Spider Queen. An offering of some small peace between us.”
An air of anger swept all around them, but it was quickly gone. “There is nothing belonging to you that I crave, Bringer of Doom. Do not incur my ire.”
“It is not my intention to draw your wrath. But I assure you, you have wanted what I have to give for a long time.”
An ethereal hiss sent tendrils of fear climbing up Slayd’s spine and even made Guile shiver, but it faded away as quickly as the feeling of anger had a moment ago. “Come, then. Come to me and present your gift, Bane of Moroloth. For your sake I hope it is indeed something I desire greatly.”
The giant white creature turned again and scuttled down the aisle of spiders. Slayd followed, clutching Guile’s arm closely.
The path to the castle was longer than Slayd had thought. As he passed across the hollow he saw hundreds (maybe even thousands) of wriggling legs and ghostly white bodies belonging to spiders of all shapes and sizes. Now Slayd liked creepy-crawly things, but there is an odd feeling somebody will get when they find themselves in a deep place with so very many of them crawling around and staring, and not at all in a friendly way. And even though he liked spiders, that feeling made Slayd wish very, very hard that he was anywhere else but here.
Deeper into the hollow they followed the spiders’ path, slowly descending towards the crystal castle. Here the skeleton trees had grown massive when they had been alive. They jutted up through the sandy ground in crooked tangles and towering columns covered in cobwebs. And the webs certainly covered everything. Slayd could even see a thin film blanketing every inch of ground and every bit of tree, holding the dew and making everything around them shimmer beautifully, but eerily.
As they approached the glistening castle, Slayd couldn’t help but grow more and more uneasy. Their footing had become more solid as the soggy sand gave way to a stone pathway, but that did nothing to ease his apprehension. The stone arched into a narrow bridge, and Slayd found himself reaching behind him for Guile’s hand. He balked at setting foot on it.
“Go on, Slayd. What’s wrong?” The spiteful cheer in Guile’s voice made Slayd want to slap him, but of course he didn’t dare.
“The… the bridge doesn’t have any railing, and it’s so narrow! I cannot -” He peered over the edge, and promptly regretted it. “I cannot see the bottom of that chasm at all!” The butterflies in his stomach threatened to leap right out of his throat.
Guile shoved him hard, and he stumbled forward onto the narrow arch. “You should realize by now that I will not let you fall. Don’t test me with your idiocy.”
Slayd scrambled backwards, groping for Guile’s hand again. He sighed and gave it, gripping hard. “We are losing our escort, thanks to your dawdling. Hurry on.”
Slayd wanted to squeeze his eyes shut against the yawning blackness below him, but he forced himself to stare straight ahead, careful to keep as close to the center of the bridge as he could. As his first footfalls hit the stone, the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. “… Do you hear that?”
Slayd thought he could hear whispering in a light breeze that seemed to be coming up from the chasm. He would have turned around, but with Guile behind him there was no where else to go but straight ahead. He reluctantly edged one foot in front of the other. They inched their way across slowly, and by the time they reached the other side the big white spider was nowhere to be seen.
The castle loomed tall and glistening before them, the cobwebs thick and heavy over the glassy stones. A tall, narrow archway adorned their return to less precarious ground. Beyond it, steps led up to the threshold of the castle, barred by thick doors made of iron that had been twisted into strange, spiral shapes. Runes had been carved on the stone floor leading up to the doors, and they seemed to glow in the hazy light that filtered in through the heavy mist. They reminded Slayd of similar ones he remembered seeing way back at the temples on the shore of the dark lake.
The whispering Slayd had heard coming from the chasm behind them had not abated once they stepped clear of the bridge. Rather they seemed to grow more earnest, and every now and then Slayd imagined he could make out a word or two of what they were saying. Their voices seemed to rise and fall with a rhythm that reminded Slayd far too much of a funeral dirge. He almost turned right back around to cross the bridge again but Guile stood in his way, looking rather pleased.
“Oh no, little one. We have come this far, you will not be scared off by a few persistent disembodied voices.” He gripped Slayd’s hand hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, and pulled him towards the archway.
As they approached, Slayd saw a figure step out from beneath the shadow of the arch. It seemed to sway with the rise and fall of the whispering voices, and beckoned them with a long finger. Guile tugged Slayd towards the figure, who tucked a scarf back behind his ears as they neared. Slayd thought the tattered ends of it looked like tentacles.
The man bowed low to Slayd. “I bid you greeting, courtesy of my mistress the Spider Queen,” he said in a quiet voice Slayd had to strain himself to hear, “though I bid you no greeting under my own authority. Rare are visitors here; rarer still are those who are welcome.”
Slayd squirmed uncomfortably in his skin at the man’s words. He looked up to Guile for guidance, but he just eyed him with a toothy smile.
But the man had already turned around anyway and was making his way towards the twisted iron doors that led inside. Slayd hurried to come up behind him, with Guile grinning at his heels. The man took out a massive key ring and unlatched one of the doors. The hinges groaned loudly as if they had not been opened in a hundred years, and even the omnipresent murmuring voices paused for a brief moment.
“I have been commanded to give you anything that you require during your stay here,” the man said, his own voice so quiet it was reminiscent of the hushed whispers. “But be assured that you will not be staying long, regardless of promised gifts.” He eyed Guile for a moment with what Slayd thought was an intensely curious look before he beckoned them with one finger again. “Please, come with me.”
Slayd was startled by how bright it was inside. The white crystal and cobwebs made everything glisten with a light that seemed to come from the walls and pillars themselves, although there were glowing blue orbs suspended from the ceiling on strands of silk that contributed their own lights’ reflections in the stone. High vaulted ceilings arched far above their heads, supported by crystal rafters so thickly draped in cobwebs he had a hard time distinguishing the stone. There were more of the blue orbs on wrought iron stands lining the wide hall, alternating with silken tapestries woven in intricate abstract designs. Slayd almost imagined he had walked right into a storybook fairy castle, but the dim whispering voices seemed to trickle out of the walls, and every now and then he thought he could hear a faint, muffled scream.
The man led them straight through the castle, never deviating down the wide hall. Prickles on the back of Slayd’s neck kept making him turn around to look for something that might be following them, but he didn’t see anyone and ended up only giving himself more shivers. The hall seemed to go on for a very long time, and Slayd wondered if the castle was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside (which would have been quite expected if it was indeed a fairy castle).
Part of their steps passed alongside an immense square in the floor that seemed to have been somehow misplaced. The whispers were louder here, echoing from the deep abyss where the floor should be and circling around the tiered pillars until they faded away to the ceiling. This huge hole they passed by quickly, much to Slayd’s relief. He chanced a quick look behind them after they had passed by, and swore to every god he had ever heard of that he saw a black shape creep over the edge for a moment before vanishing again into the hole. He grasped Guile’s hand tightly.
“Is something the matter, little one?”
Slayd shook his head. “There are things in that hole.”
“Yes.” Slayd didn’t have to look up at his guardian’s face to know he was smirking down at him. He scowled and tried to ignore him.
The hall ended in a heavy silken tapestry, woven to depict the only image Slayd had seen that was not abstract. It showed an immense tower surrounded by a wide circle of fire. Heavy dark clouds loomed over a red horizon, and there were eyes in the sky where stars should have been. The tower looked familiar, but he couldn’t place how he knew it. But before he could study the picture any more closely, the man with the odd scarf had pulled the tapestry aside and ushered them into an expansive throne room.
It was dimmer here. Less light seemed to come from the crystal, making the blue glow from the orbs lining the walls seem more intense than it really was. Thick red runners extended the length of the room, swept clean of cobwebs (which were still thick upon the walls and the ceiling rafters, Slayd noticed). The throne at the opposite end of the room stood empty. On either side, over a dozen dark wooden doors alternated with the wrought iron stands holding orbs. Slayd wondered where they all could possibly lead, and his mind immediately began inventing possibilities, all of which were horrible.
The whispers sounded more muffled here, but it did nothing to alleviate the crawling sensation on the back of Slayd’s neck. If anything the sensation only grew more intense. “I really do not think we should be here…”
Guile jabbed him in the ribs to silence him, and the man turned to regard him quizzically for a moment before leading them through one of the wooden side doors and into a comfortable-looking receiving room.
White silken chairs and low tables carved in skeleton tree wood were arranged in circles around the room, and the same kinds of abstract tapestries lined the walls. They fluttered a little in a breeze that shouldn’t have been there, but at least the whispering voices were quieter here.
The strange man bowed again to Slayd. “The Spider Queen does not venture forth from the bowels of the castle while daylight still lingers. You must wait here until dusk, and then I will return to escort you into her presence.”
“…Daylight?” Slayd snuck a glance at Guile. As far as he had seen, there was no sun to light this world at all (and only occasionally a moon). The hazy greyness that happened every once in a while seemed to be the closest thing to daytime he had ever noticed.
The man ignored his idle question. “In the meantime, please allow me to provide you with anything you need. Do you require food? Rest?”
Slayd looked again to Guile but he said nothing, only raised an eyebrow at him and lifted a corner of his mouth.
“Umm… probably a little bit of both, I suppose, if it’s not too much trouble,” he said. “I do not want to be a bother.”
The man bowed in response. “I will return shortly.”
He turned to go, but Slayd stopped him with an “Umm…”
“Yes, my Lord?”
“What is your name? I don’t believe you ever said…” He felt sheepish even asking.
He tipped his head to one side, careful to keep his scarf close around his face. “I am Lord Tarantula. It has been very long since we were fist introduced.”
“I am afraid I do not remember much anyway,” Slayd sighed. “But I suppose you know about that too.”
Lord Tarantula nodded once, and left the room.
“I thought you said that there were no people living in the Spider Queen’s realm…” Slayd mumbled idly.
Guile shrugged. “There are a precious few. Some servants, a hermit, the Spider Queen’s relations, but no court or subjects to speak of. Only those who are like-minded dwell within the limits of the Spider Queen’s touch.” He grinned wide. “Give Lord Tarantula a wide berth.”
Slayd hugged his arms close to his body and shivered. Suddenly that Very Bad feeling had returned, and he found himself very grateful that the Spider Queen thought that it was daytime. He slowly sank into the comfort of one of the soft, cushy chairs, hoping that this brief moment of rest would last for at least a little while.
But Guile didn’t seem too keen on resting. No sooner did he sit down than he was up again, pacing slowly with a gleefully thoughtful look on his face. Slayd tried to ignore that look. “I don’t understand why you’re so happy to stay.”
Guile paused for a moment. “For one, you have a comfortable place to rest and recover some of your energy. I am not about to have you already tired and weary and sore before we even get started on the next leg of our little journey. For another, the Spider Queen and I are not on very amicable terms with each other, as you have probably noticed. I have a chance of remedying a small part of that now, and I will take that chance if I can.”
“What happened, that made her detest you so?”
Guile’s laugh sounded slightly manic. “Oh, that is a very long story Slayd, I shall tell you some other time. For now, suffice it to say that the Spider Queen has visions, both true and untrue, some very real and some very fanciful. In one of them she saw me as a threat.”
Slayd shifted in his seat. “…Are you?”
A swift change came over Guile’s face. It became almost gentle, and he stooped over Slayd’s chair and cupped his chin. “No matter how irritated with you I become, Slayd, I should think that you know by now that I cannot do anything but fulfill my duty to you and to our Lord Moroloth. The roots of my loyalty run deep, Slayd. Far deeper than the Spider Queen could ever know, even down to the bottom of the very abyss her castle stands on.” He held his gaze for moments longer than Slayd was comfortable with. “However… My loyalty may lie with our Lord, but I regrettably do not share many of his ideals. The Spider Queen knows this, but cannot do anything about it. And as she said, it vexes her. She fiercely holds to every tenet of those ideals.”
Slayd had a hard, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “You… you say that her visions can be real or fanciful…” He stared hard at the crystal floor.
“…Which kind are her visions of you and me?”
Guile sighed and pulled Slayd up out of his chair, holding him against him. “Do not think on such things, Slayd. You still do not learn to ask the right questions. I cannot promise you that I will not hurt you, but I can promise you that I will stay by your side and protect you. I have no intention of leaving you.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” Slayd whispered hoarsely, resting his head against Guile’s chest.
“No, it’s not. But it is all I have to offer, and it is the truth.” He patted Slayd on his head before releasing him and resuming his pacing.
Slayd sighed and flopped back into his chair, staring up at the ceiling high over his head. Before he could decide what he was going to start worrying about next, the door creaked noisily open and Lord Tarantula came in, followed by one of the big white spiders they had seen outside the castle. Balanced on top of the spider was a silken bundle, which Lord Tarantula placed on the low table in front of Slayd’s chair. He bowed without a word and retreated from the room, followed by the spider.
“Ah, it appears that dinner has been served,” Guile said, and he pulled open the bundle. It was full of tiny packages, each holding a morsel of food. Guile picked at it and offered one to Slayd. He eyed it suspiciously.
“How do we know we can trust what she gives us? I have heard stories before - terrible stories - of places that people have gone, who can never return if they eat the food offered to them.”
Guile shrugged. “Nonsense. And in any event you need to eat.”
Slayd wrinkled up his nose and picked up one of the packages. It looked delicious, almost like a truffle. He frowned. “I do not trust it, no matter how good it looks.”
“Eat, or I will force it down your throat.” Guile was smiling when he said it, but Slayd’s eyes got huge and he popped the truffle in his mouth without another word. It was pretty tasty, and he found himself opening up dozens of the tiny packages. He looked idly around the room as he ate, studying the pretty designs on the tapestries. They fluttered every now and then in a breeze Slayd couldn’t feel, and whenever they did he thought that the very faint whispers he had been trying to drown out of his head became just a tiny bit louder.
He swallowed his last truffle and plucked his courage. He wandered over to the nearest woven design and brushed his hand over it. It seemed pretty normal, woven of silk and fine linen. The fabric shimmered against the crystal wall behind it, and the dim light that seemed to come from the stone itself made both the wall and the tapestry seem translucent. He tentatively placed a hand on the wall, running a finger over its smooth surface.
It was cold. Ice cold. He pulled his hand away quickly. As soon as he did, a shadow in the wall seemed to move, and Slayd jumped nearly out of his skin. He tumbled backwards and almost fell over one of the chairs. “There – there is a hand in the wall!”
Guile glanced over in his direction and raised an eyebrow.
“I’m serious, Guile! I saw it!”
His guardian nodded nonchalantly. “I do not doubt what you saw. You need not worry. Those ensnared by the Spider Queen can do you no harm.”
“Ensnared? You mean that there are people caught in the walls?!” He crept a little closer to Guile and stared back at the wall. “That’s horrifying! Is there anything we can do - ”
Slayd stared hard at Guile, but his expression was unreadable.
“It – it is still terrible. What will happen to them?”
“It doesn’t really matter. They will all have an unpleasant fate, but do not dwell on such things.” He grinned (and if Slayd had been paying attention, he would have noticed it was forced). “Surely you did not expect much happiness and joy here.”
Slayd shook his head and tucked himself firmly in his chair, pulling his knees up to his chin. He really wanted to be over and done with whatever he needed to do here so they could leave.
A thump at the door drew both Guile and Slayd’s attention. Guile hissed. “It seems your inquisitive nature may have drawn a little curiosity from one of the denizens of this castle in return.”
“I did not mean to - ”
Another thump against the door turned into a rattle, and the door handle twisted and turned, but did not open. Slayd thought he heard what sounded like a child’s sigh. He froze and whispered, “What is it, Guile?”
Guile just shook his head, a dark look shadowing his features. The handle twisted again and shuddered under the strain of whatever was pulling on it from the other side. It was almost as if whatever was out there didn’t know how to open a door. But the handle finally gave, and the door creaked loudly as it inched open. Slayd stared wide-eyed at the empty doorframe, his heart beating wildly behind its cage.
From the corner of the threshold a hand felt its way blindly along the floor, followed by a twisted arm. Slayd heard that small sigh again, and another hand gripped the doorframe a few feet from the ground. With a jerking, twitching stagger, the writhing fingers dragged a contorted, bound and bandaged body across the threshold, drawing another sigh from the creature. Towed along behind it were clinking, discolored chains. It was impossible to tell if they were stained by rust or blood.
Slayd covered his mouth to keep himself from screaming. Guile scowled at the twisted form as it shuddered across the floor, its legs reaching up over its shoulders in a crawl that might have reminded one of a lizard (if lizards were prone to seizures, that is).
Its whole head was covered in bandages, except for a few that hung loose around its mouth. Bound in strips of cloth, tape, and chains, Slayd was surprised it could even move at all. But move it did, if rather unsteadily. It crept right up to the foot of Slayd’s chair, sighing in a child’s voice. It reached up a shaking hand, its fingers wriggling wildly in an effort to find the body it sought. Slayd cowered away from it, pulling himself onto the back of the chair.
“Do not fear him, Slayd,” Guile said softly, his eyes never leaving the creature’s face, “Wretch will not hurt you. He is the lowest among the cursed, but that means little to his heart. He means you no harm.”
The expression on Guile’s face was so unfamiliar, Slayd had a hard time trying to distinguish what he might be feeling. He didn’t move from his perch on the back of the chair, though.
The creature Guile had called Wretch pawed up at Slayd, his head cocked to one side. He had a nasty odor, and a thin string of saliva dripped from a sagging bandage. Slayd wrinkled up his nose in revulsion. What kind of creature is he?
Wretch snaked a shivering arm up the cushions of the chair until he made contact with Slayd’s knee. He gripped tight, and a slurred, hushed voice Slayd expected to belong to a kindergarten student came from behind the bandages.
And grasshopper tails
That’s what little boys are made of…”
As he spoke the bandages fell away from his mouth, revealing deep purple-red gums receding from peg teeth, framed by quivering lips spread wide in a grimace.
Slayd couldn’t help it. He shrieked.
The effect on Wretch was very unexpected. He recoiled as if he had discovered he was holding a handful of fire ants and sprawled backwards onto the floor, all of his limbs thrown into spasms like a dying insect.
Guile knelt beside the bandaged creature and placed a hand on his forehead. “Be still, Wretch. He no longer knows you.”
Wretch fell limp almost immediately, and another child’s sigh escaped his hideous lips. His limber fingers found Guile’s ankle, and he twisted his head around at an almost impossible angle to gape at him, grinning.
Who walked a crooked mile
He hid a heart of poison
Behind a crooked smile.”
Guile ignored the rhyme. “Perhaps you are farther gone than I supposed you were, Wretch. Do not pick at such scabs; let old wounds be. Go back to your hole. Die quickly and get it over with. Or perhaps you came here to beg for that release? I can give it to you.”
Startled at what his guardian had just said, Slayd glanced from Wretch to Guile, wondering why Guile wanted to kill the pathetic creature. But his words had not been spoken in anger, as Slayd realized a little too slowly. The unfamiliar expression he had seen on his face earlier had not been spite. It had been pity.
Guile still knelt beside him, his face close to Wretch’s and one hand stroking his bandaged head as if he were a kitten.
Wretch’s grimace behind his bandages deepened.
Then beggars would ride.
If turnips were swords
I’d have one through your side.”
He jerked away from Guile’s touch, flipping over and balancing himself unsteadily on the tips of his fingers and the balls of his feet.
Guile just shook his head. “I see. You are forbidden. I will not risk more of the Spider Queen’s wrath by offering again.”
Wretch ignored him and tossed his wobbly head back in Slayd’s direction, his quivering fingers stretched out again towards him.
Where have you been?
To give to the Queen?”
Slayd swallowed hard. “Umm… I do not have any roses, but…”
“It is not Slayd that has a gift for the Queen, but I.” Guile sat down on the floor next to Wretch and crossed his legs, extending a hand to him. Wretch’s head cocked almost entirely sideways at Guile, and Slayd got the impression he had piqued his curiosity. He crawled over to Guile’s lap and leaned his face so close to his that their noses almost touched. Slayd wondered how Guile could stand the stench.
And tied it to some string
Let it go a little way
And pulled it back again.”
Guile grinned wide. “Indeed. I see your senses are as sharp as ever. Perhaps you are not as far gone as I thought you were.”
Slayd looked from one to the other, wondering what in the blazes they were talking about. Wretch didn’t seem to make any sense at all, but then again he hadn’t really known him all that long, nor did he want to. The freakish creature was leering at Guile excitably, practically panting.
He sings as he flies;
He brings us good tidings
And tells us no lies.”
He crawled over Guile as if he had simply been part of the floor and plastered himself in the corner of the room, facing the wall. He folded his impossibly twisted arms around himself and swayed, quietly sighing in his child’s voice. Slayd couldn’t help but shudder in disgust.
“What did all of that mean?” He asked his guardian quietly as he seated himself cautiously back in his chair.
Guile shrugged and got up from the floor. “Do not ask stupid questions, Slayd. Did you get enough to eat?”
Slayd nodded. “Mmhmm. Did you? I didn’t notice you eat much at all.”
Guile smirked. “I think I’m having a little… indigestion.”
Slayd’s stomach churned at the thought of Jyrr’s broken body curdling around inside Guile, and he wished he hadn’t eaten so many truffles. “I thought you said you weren’t going to keep him inside of you.”
“Indeed, I am not. I do not like the way he tastes. Rotten.” Guile’s grin only grew wider at the look of revulsion on Slayd’s face. “But speaking of Jyrr, I suppose it is time I put him back together. You might want to look away, Slayd. This will not be very pleasant.”