Chapter 19: Of Bells and Chimes.
And quickly they did leave. Or at least, they tried to. They pressed through the skeleton tree forest as quickly as Guile could tow Slayd along behind him, but it was slow going. All traces of the spiders were gone from among the gnarled roots (or so Slayd hoped. Those tree roots looked far too much like spider legs for his comfort). The trees in the grove seemed to have switched their places however, and the path that had once led them to the castle before was now nowhere to be found.
But Guile did not seem very intent on going back the way they had come. He led Slayd through the trees, circling around the deep chasm surrounding the Spider Queen’s castle. He pressed further east, and Slayd noticed that the ground was sloping further upward and the cobwebs on the trees became sparser. He hoped this meant they wouldn’t run into other deep holes in the ground any time soon.
But the higher they went, the more difficult their trek. The cobwebs had almost all but vanished, but a dense fog had crept in around them, growing so thick it was difficult to see more than a few meters ahead. Slayd trudged along behind his guardian, wondering if he’d ever get the soggy sand out of his shoes.
As before, it was silent here. He could see insects in the air, but could not hear the buzzing of their wings. The still puddles of water dotting the sandy ground made no splashing or dripping sounds, nor did the dead trees creak and groan like they should, even in the still air. Even the hideously ugly birds that occasionally perched in the topmost branches of the trees refused to croak or even flutter their ragged wings.
But the Very Bad Feeling that had haunted Slayd ever since they first saw the white spiders was beginning to fade. While this place was still eerie and he still felt like he was being watched, he no longer had the sense that something was looming behind him, ready to eat him up the moment he turned around.
He turned his head, but didn’t stop walking. “What is it?”
“Do you think we’re safe now?”
Guile choked out a hoarse laugh, but quickly toned his voice down to a whisper. “Certainly not, Slayd. We will not be ‘safe’ until we find ourselves on the doorstep of the Locust Kingdom. And that is still a long way from here.”
“Do you think… she’ll come after us?”
“Oh, probably. Her anger cannot be appeased, only delayed. She will brood on my inability to provide her with this gift,” he said, patting the back of Jyrr’s leg, “and eventually she will try to take him back, and me with him. She is dangerous, but fortunately for us she is predictable.”
Slayd nodded and pursed his lips. Something had been bothering him about the Spider Queen ever since he had first seen her. He kept his voice hushed and whispered, “The Spider Queen is a very odd kind of person… It made me very uncomfortable, the way she looked at me. Or, well, didn’t look at me, I suppose.”
Guile turned to regard Slayd with a quizzical raised eyebrow. “The Spider Queen is blind, Slayd.”
He frowned. “But… I thought you said she had eyes everywhere, and that she is watching us all the while we are in her kingdom.”
“That is true,” Guile nodded. “Her spiders and creatures of the skeleton groves are eyes for her. Yet she herself cannot truly see.”
Slayd nodded slowly in understanding.
“Of course,” Guile continued, his voice faint and distracted, “You cannot really put a distinction on where the Spider Queen ends, and her spiders begin. Their consciousness is all one and the same, I would think. Fortunate for us they are rather dispersed out here. Now be silent.”
Slayd flinched, only just now remembering that Guile was probably extremely angry with him. He glanced up at Guile’s burden, wondering what would happen to Jyrr now.
The skeleton trees grew more and more sparse as they traveled on, and little clumps of spindly brown grasses began to spring up through the sand. Slayd would have given quite a lot for the pleasure of having dry feet, but he couldn’t see that as even a remote possibility any time soon. Slogging through wet sand was exhausting.
Slayd frowned. Had he just heard something? It could have been his own ears trying to invent some sort of sound to listen to other than the squish of their feet.
No. He heard something that time. Windchimes? Bells?
Guile tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, but did not stop walking.
He paused. “What is it?”
“Do you hear that?”
Both of them stood in silence, straining to hear anything in the heavy fog.
Jyrr took that moment to come to. He stirred in Guile’s arms and groaned. Guile dug a fingernail into his side and growled in his ear, “Be silent, lout.”
Jyrr’s eyes flew open at the sound of Guile’s voice. He flinched and opened his mouth to say something, but only a stammering squeak came out.
Jyrr froze, eyes growing wide in confusion. “What is going – ow!”
Guile dug another claw into his side. “Still your tongue or I shall do it for you. Listen!”
Jyrr obediently shut up. If his eyes could have opened any wider, they would have swallowed his entire face.
Slayd ignored him, all his attention focused on trying to capture that elusive sound. He was barely breathing. “…Do you hear it?”
“I hear it.” Guile’s voice was hardly even a whisper. He shook his head. “It can’t be…”
Slayd cocked his head. “What do you mean? What is - ”
“Oh no, we aren’t where we think we are, are we?” Jyrr looked like he had just seen a ghost. “We are! Oh what have you dragged us into, Guile! Do you know what he’s done to – mmph!”
Guile threw him to the soggy ground and dropped himself on top of him, clapping a hand over his mouth. “Be still.”
All three fell silent, straining their ears for the sound of chimes. But there was nothing.
Guile pulled Jyrr to his feet by his hair. “Do that again,” he hissed directly into his ear, “and you won’t have the vocal chords needed to make such a racket.”
He released Jyrr, who slumped back to the ground, knees still too weak to hold his weight. He shook his head and bit his lower lip, indicating he wouldn’t make another sound.
“We move on.”
Guile took Slayd’s hand to tow him along, but he pulled back. “Jyrr can’t walk, Guile,” he whispered.
Guile looked unconcerned. “He can fly. Unlike my own, his wings are tireless. Best he use them.”
Slayd pointed a finger at Jyrr’s chest, where Guile’s claws had raked deep marks when he had torn open the cobweb casing. “I mean… well, he’s hurt too.”
Guile’s eye sockets narrowed. “Do not push me, Slayd. You have little idea or recollection of ever sparking my anger, but I assure you, I’ll find some way of reminding you what it means to overstep your boundaries with me. You have already crossed a line you should never have even dared to tread. Do not make it worse for yourself by insisting I heal him in addition to everything I have already done.” He brushed by Slayd, a snarl barely hidden on his face.
Jyrr smiled weakly at Slayd and wiped the mud off of his back, whispering, “Thank you anyway, dear one…”
He fluttered his wings once as a test run and then pulled himself into the air, hovering a few feet above the ground. He followed along behind Guile and Slayd, keeping close.
Slayd frowned. Whatever Jyrr knew about the chimes they had heard, it had frightened him. He caught up with his guardian. “What was making that sound, Guile?”
He shook his head. “If it is what I believe, it is a man neither Jyrr nor I have ever seen, only heard of. He is called the Desert Recluse. As far as I am aware, he is a great sage with much wisdom and power, and he has taken this corner of the world to be his hermitage. I remember our master had sent letters to him on occasion, but any others who ever attempted to correspond with him had their couriers’ heads returned to them in the talons of his familiars.” He gestured towards the branches of a skeleton tree further ahead, where ugly birds with tattered wings perched, glowering down at them with bloodshot eyes. “No one has seen him for decades, if not centuries, and lived to tell of it. He is known by the sound of his chimes, and the gathering of the mort crows.” His head inclined towards the ugly birds again.
As if in direct response to what Guile said (and Slayd really did not imagine it was a coincidence), a dim “caw” from far ahead of them reached their ears. It was answered by another, and then several more. The cry of the far-off crows made both Slayd and Jyrr shudder. Jyrr clutched Guile’s arm. “If that is so, then we are headed squarely in his direc - ”
Guile shook him off and shrugged. “I thought I told you to be quiet. I do not know if it is he, or not. I do not know if he is even still alive. He has lived centuries. Perhaps his ghost still lingers here.”
Jyrr grew pallid and shuddered all over. Slayd thought he saw a cruel grin slip by Guile’s lips, but he couldn’t be sure because his guardian had moved ahead of them quickly, leading the way deeper into the ever-growing fog.
The skeleton trees grew sparse even as the mist around them condensed. Slayd couldn’t even see their feet, and he began imagining what might happen if they suddenly came upon a mire or an unusually deep pool of water. He consoled himself with the fact that the cry of the crows had faded away, and he hoped that whatever reason they had gathered in the first place was a normal, everyday reason rather than the manifestation of a ghost monk with a sour attitude towards visitors.
Slogging through watery sand was not one of Slayd’s favourite activities. In fact, as the hours slipped by and the dim grey of day slipped into a dark hazy night, he found that it was one of the things that he probably loathed the most. He had to stop every so often to pull leeches off of his ankles and brush the sand fleas off his trousers. And the silence around them was heavy. Rarely the crows cawed from far beyond their path, but they were so faint it was like they were calling from another world.
And then he heard that ethereal jingle again, from directly behind them. All three travelers froze and slowly turned, every ear pricked for another sound. But there was nothing behind them but the thick fog and the quiet of the dark.
Slayd grabbed for Guile’s hand and whispered, “If this keeps up, I am afraid all of my nerves will be frazzled long before we ever reach the Locust Kingdom.”
Guile nodded absently, his eyeless sockets still scrutinizing the path they had just trod. “Regardless, we move on. Do not touch me.” He pried Slayd’s hand off of his own and turned to resume their trudge through the marsh.
“Oh hell!” Jyrr whirled around and launched himself into the air, peeling away at breakneck speed.
Guile lunged after him, but his aim missed. “Jyrr! Get back here!” He spread his own wings and tore off in pursuit, leaving Slayd alone in the dark of the marsh.
He turned in slow circles, eyes wide as dinner plates and a creeping tingle edging up his spine. Where were the chimes coming from?
They were closer now, perhaps just beyond the nearest skeleton tree. He pulled his dagger out of his shirt and held it out in front of him, although it suddenly seemed very small and useless just then. A splash of water to his left made him whirl around, and he peered into the thick fog. A dark shape approached, and Slayd had half a mind to just run right at it with blade drawn and hope to catch it off-guard. But before he could make up his mind, the shape materialized into Guile, cursing in guttural whispers under his breath.
“Oh thank the gods! I didn’t know it was you… Where’s Jyrr?” Slayd sheathed his little blade and would have run up to Guile, but the glower he received changed his mind. “Hush. Listen.”
A flutter of many heavy wings above them drew their gaze towards the branches of the nearest tree. Over a dozen of the ugly mort crows had landed in its naked branches, their bloodshot eyes fixed on Slayd and his guardian.
They heard the chimes again. Guile grabbed Slayd’s arm and thrust him behind his back, snarling silently into the dark fog.
Slowly a tall, robed man shambled across the soggy ground towards them, wearing a wide hat hung with wind chimes. He paused for a long moment once he cleared the fog, and leaned on a priest’s staff adorned with many bells. He looked long at Slayd, who grew nervous under his stare. Guile made no move to either speak or attack him though, so Slayd guessed that he might be only the ghost of the monk they had been talking about earlier.
A few long moments dragged by before the man extended a gnarled hand studded with long, dirty fingernails to Slayd. “You pass too far to the north, if the Locust Kingdom is your goal, Heir of the Lich King.”
If his voice had been the cue Guile was waiting for, he took it now without hesitation. He dropped to one knee and bowed his head briefly. “You are the Desert Recluse?”
The monk nodded, his chimes jingling. “You have lost something.”
“Jyrr. He belongs to Slayd.” He made no effort to conceal the distain in his voice.
“I see.” His voice seemed to belong more to the silence of the marsh than to actual sound. “Those who are vassals to the Lich King or his Heir shall live.”
A sigh escaped Guile’s lips, and Slayd wondered if he had really intended on expressing just how disappointing the Desert Recluse’s response had been to him.
The monk did not seem to notice. He directed his gnarled finger at Guile and turned to Slayd. “This one is also yours.”
Slayd looked to Guile, wondering what to say. But Guile answered for him with a speed that made Slayd gawk. “Yes. I belong to him.”
The Desert Recluse nodded. “Then come.”
The monk led them through the fog and heavy darkness. His dark patchwork robes sometimes seemed to fade into the night by themselves, leaving the pair with nothing more to follow than the ethereal sound of his chimes and occasionally his dead voice.
“You are being pursued.”
Slayd’s eyes widened and he tried to catch up with the Recluse’s long stride. “We are? By whom? What do they want with us?”
Guile shook his scarred head. “They are not after us, Slayd. More than likely they are after me.”
The jingle of the monk’s chimes fell dead in the air as he nodded. “The Spider Queen is wrathful. I must send you on your way, and quickly.”
Slayd’s Very Bad Feeling crept back up his spine again. He hoped those creepy white spiders wouldn’t come upon them again.
“Collect your vassal.”
“Huh?” Slayd frowned and looked up at the ghostly man, who pointed a fingernail at the soggy ground ahead of them. Jyrr lay flat on his back in a shallow puddle of water, chest heaving and dazed eyes staring up at the dark sky.
Slayd jumped to his side. “What happened to him?” He touched his forehead. Hot… “Jyrr? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”
Jyrr’s bewildered eyes refocused, and he blinked blearily up at Slayd. “What… what happened?”
Guile shoved Slayd aside and hauled Jyrr upright, none too gently. “On your feet, you idiot. Why I still have patience for your absurdities is beyond me.”
Jyrr’s eyes flicked to the Desert Recluse, and he nearly fell over again. Guile slapped him across his face. “He is our guide now. Adjust to the idea or die of fright.” He dropped his grip on his arm and cocked his head at the monk. “Lead on.”
The Recluse shook his head slowly, and pointed a long fingernail ahead. “Go. The shrine holds possibilities for your young Heir. He must see.”
Guile’s sockets narrowed, and he thrust Slayd in front of him by his shoulder. “Then go on.” He pushed him along from behind, Slayd dragging his feet against the slippery ground.
“Where are we going? What possibilities?”
The path they had been following led to a sparse grove of skeleton trees. The ugly mort crows had gathered in disturbing numbers among their naked branches. Hung among them were warding scrolls and dead bodies, adorned with ribbons and tiny copper bells. Bird skeletons and ancient coins littered the ground around a fire pit, lined with bleached skeleton tree wood.
All Slayd could think was that he was relieved this shrine didn’t seem to be as macabre as the one he remembered seeing in Incavius’ temple, even with the dead bodies hanging from the branches. Jyrr squirmed uncomfortably beside him, staring at the birds in the trees with dread.
The Desert Recluse knelt before the woodpile, extending a curled hand and muttering an incantation in his dead voice. A white fire sprung up in the pit, the flames dancing to the slow motion of the monk’s fingers. “Look into the fire, Heir of the Lich King, and tell me what you see.”