Chapter 20: I Never Intended to Tell You.
The white curls of flame swept towards his outstretched fingers, drawing him close in an embrace that was warm and inviting. He felt a hand on his head, and he looked up into wizened white eyes. The severe features of an old man gazed down at him, but when he met those fathomless eyes, the old man smiled gently. He said something to Slayd, but he couldn't hear any words.
The old man turned and extended the hand to a kneeling figure on the floor, covered in white feathers. A bony hand took the old man's fingers, and Slayd watched Guile bring them to his lips, mouthing the word "Master..."
Slayd's eyes drooped shut. What a strange feeling... It's as if I've grown smaller somehow...
The scent of sandalwood and myrrh reached his nose and he opened his eyes. He was lying in a white round bed, covered in blankets and surrounded by pillows. Someone was lying next to him, and as they rolled over he could see...
An open expanse of sky, above and below him, the wind raking through his hair and a shout of joy about to escape his lips. A massive dragonfly was his mount, and he was king of the sky and the clouds, watching the world rush by far below. That is, until Guile...
Guile loomed over him, huge and terrifying, a snarl contorting his wrinkled face. He couldn't hear what he was screaming at him about, but he covered his ears anyway and flinched away. Guile grabbed his hand and twisted his fingers until they bled, and he released something he had been holding. A tiny Glimmouring... I had caught it on the shores of the lake...
The lake. Lake Khorakh. It looked so far away now, just barely on the horizon. The cracked and broken ground now at his feet seemed to stretch away and into forever, trying to take Slayd's dizzy brain with it. A single tower jutted into the sky, as if it were a solitary stone fist raised in defiance to the very gods that might have made it so very long ago. The torn sky above him was streaked with red, as if the scattered clouds were bruised and bleeding. Thousands of black birds (or were they insects?) circled overhead, as if they were waiting for someone to die. Slayd shuddered all over. It was cold here. Cold...
He clutched at the sleeves of his suit jacket, but found his fists wrapped in a shadowy billowing cloak. He opened his mouth in surprise, but he couldn't hear if he said anything. A skeletal hand emerged from the cloak and Slayd tried to jump away, but it was as if his feet were rooted to the spot. The bony fingers rested on his head, and the biting chill he had been feeling a moment ago melted away into a deep and comfortable warmth. He looked up to try to see the face of the person the skeletal hand belonged to, but it was shrouded in shadow.
The shadows were so deep... He couldn't see the angles of the structure in front of him, but he knew it was a temple. A dark, malignant temple enshrining nothing but silent, calculating malice. He knew what lay within its mirrored halls, what lurked in its dusty corners. He knew because he had once sought out this place. His feet moved on their own, and he could feel himself ascending steps he could not see. His outstretched hand found a door handle, and he pulled it open without hesitation. Yes. He had been searching for something...
The door opened, and Slayd stepped through into a field full of yellow daisies. A soft breeze tickled his ears and rustled the leaves on the trees, and he could hear robins singing to each other in the orange glow of an early summer sunset.
"There you are! I've been waiting for you for so long."
Slayd turned to the voice, relieved that he could hear again. A small boy stood knee deep in the flowers, arms crossed over his chest and a pout on his face. "You sure do know how to keep your brother waiting!"
Casey. I know this boy. I know this place. His eyes traveled from Casey's face to the big white farmhouse behind him. A woman was standing on the porch, waving to them.
"Come on, or I'll eat everything without you!" Casey beamed at him and turned, running towards the house.
No. That wasn't a house. It was a mirror.
Slayd ran after the boy and called for him to stop, but his voice died in his throat and Casey disappeared into the glass.
No... Why do I always lose this? He pounded a fist into the mirror, seeing rage and grief overflow from his eyes. Maggots and tears streaked down his cheeks, and he dropped to his knees. What did I do wrong? Why does this happen to me? He pressed his fingers to the glass and sighed into the darkness it reflected. Even his reflection seemed to desert him. His reflection...
His fingers pressed back. A hand shot through the glass and grabbed Slayd by his wrist, pulling him thrashing and struggling into the mirror. Blood and wings and teeth and a hatred so deep, so black and pure, it almost seemed like...
The Desert Recluse reached into the fire, eyes fixed on Slayd's enthralled face. The white flames flickered once, then died.
Slayd blinked groggily and shook his head. Were those - were those memories? Or something else? It was so real...
The monk knelt beside him. "There are other worlds, and sometimes the dead move between them."
Slayd had heard something like that before, but he still didn't understand it. He only nodded in response.
The Desert Recluse offered his gnarled hand to him, wrapping Slayd's fingers around an ancient key. "Heir of the Lich King, it is not solely the Insect Kings that have made pledges to your lord. Take your birthright. Claim your home. Fulfill your destiny."
Slayd took the key, turning it over in his hand. It might have once been a shiny iron black, but now it was pitted and dull, green with age.
"I see. I had been curious who had been entrusted to keep it." Guile muttered quietly from where he knelt on the ground, the glimmer in his eye sockets following the key.
The Desert Recluse swept his aged hand to his left. "It is eastward you must go. Your time is short. The Spider Queen's wrath has not faltered while you lingered here."
The hairs on the back of Slayd's neck prickled. "But - how will we know the way?" There was no discernable path that he could see through the sparse trees and soggy ground.
"Your slave will know it well, though he has not traveled there before. Trust his judgment. You will know the way of your steps by the ascent."
Guile rose from where he had been kneeling. "With your leave, Recluse."
He nodded. "Your time is short."
Guile grabbed his charge by the wrist. "Slayd. Jyrr. Hurry now."
They left the Desert Recluse rather abruptly, before Slayd had a chance to thank him for not killing them after all, and for giving him the key (what it was a key to, however, he still didn't know). But Guile didn't seem too keen on good-byes. They were rushing, but aside from the prickles on the back of his neck, there hadn't really been anything that had suggested they were still being followed by the Queen's spiders.
"Guile, why are we hurrying on so fast? I thought the spiders had stayed near the castle. There's nothing out here."
"Can you not hear the sound of many creeping feet approaching from the west?" A feral grin spread across his face.
Slayd tried to listen over the sound of their own running footsteps and Jyrr's tireless wings. Indeed, instead of the eerie silence of the marsh he heard a rustling, scraping sound. "Oh, dear..."
Their path grew steeper, and the soggy sand gave way to rocky soil. It became more and more difficult for Slayd to keep up the rapid pace Guile had set, and more than once he stumbled over the loose pebbles now underfoot. Guile never helped, only spurred him on his way with a harsh yank on his wrist or a shove to his back.
But at least the fog was lifting. Slayd could see that not too far ahead of them the ground sloped upwards at a nearly impossible angle, butting up against the side of a massive mountain chain that stretched from one end of the dark horizon to the other.
Guile and Jyrr saw it too, and Guile halted their hectic pace. He turned his face to look up at the sky, dark and clear far above them and studded with stars.
A long, low whistle escaped Guile's lips, sounding like the mournful call of a dying bird. It echoed briefly in the still air, as if it were trying to escape the cloying silent magic of the dead marsh they had just left behind them.
"What are you - " Jyrr was silenced quickly as Guile slapped a hand over his mouth. He listened to the quiet around them for a tense moment. Slayd could hear the far-off creeping feet of the spiders that pursued them, and he shifted anxiously from one foot to the other. What on earth was Guile doing?
Again Guile whistled and its echo fell dead, leaving a chilly silence in its wake. He said nothing nor whistled again, and only stared up at the cloudless sky, waiting.
Then Slayd heard an answering sound which seemed to come from deep underneath the ground. A low, reverberating rumble was slowly rising, steadily louder and louder, but no matter which way they looked neither Slayd nor Jyrr could see anything that might be making the sound.
And then the night sky above them darkened suddenly to the blackest pitch, and the stars vanished from their places. The rumble was almost deafening now, and the darkness above them was moving, rapidly. It spiraled down to meet them.
Rushing, deafening, swirling chaos enveloped Slayd and he felt himself being lifted off the ground, tearing up towards the sky as if an explosion propelled him. He was thrown through the cloud of churning blackness like a rag doll, but he suffered no harm. He felt something grasp his shoulder and he saw Guile, wings spread and Jyrr clutching his other arm, wide-eyed and bewildered.
Wait a minute... Slayd blinked. This wasn't just darkness and chaos all around them. It was a huge, swelling plague of locusts.
Slayd didn't know why, but that realization comforted him greatly. Something on the very verge of his memory was quite pleased to see the swarm, and he didn't question it. The locust plague swept them far, far away from the Spider Queen's realm and the Desert Recluse's shrine, over the mountains and onto a great plateau, covered in a sea of golden grain.
As the swarm descended upon this plateau, Slayd caught a glimpse of a wide and winding river, far away. It glinted in the starlight, as if it was flashing a brief and merry welcome to these new arrivals. But the river soon vanished out of site beyond the horizon as the locusts landed in the great sea of waving grass. Here the plague dumped them somewhat unceremoniously and swarmed on, off into the distance and out of sight.
Slayd watched until he could see them no more and then turned to Guile, who was eyeing Jyrr maliciously as he cowered on the ground in front of him.
"Guile? Where are we?"
Guile waved a hand absently. "We are at the far edge of the Locust King's dominion. He is the third piece of our little puzzle, and I must say, he will welcome us far more warmly than the Spider Queen did."
At mention of the Spider Queen, Jyrr shuddered and clutched the wounds on his chest. Guile looked down at him with a scornful sneer. "Of course, I would more than willingly take her welcome again, if it meant getting rid of you."
Slayd knelt beside Jyrr, scowling at Guile. Against his better judgment he said, "Let him be, Guile, can't you see he's already scared to death of you? He's been that way ever since he regained consciousness. Isn't it enough for you that you've already killed him once?"
Guile's eye sockets narrowed dangerously and regarded Slayd for a moment. When he spoke, his normally rough voice was silky soft and deadly quiet. "It is never enough, Slayd. And you would do well to remember some of your past memories. I will tear you apart for what you took away from me in that castle. I will take you apart and put you back together again, and you will remember what I've done to you before."
His voice ended in barely a whisper, and it made Slayd's body shudder all over. But Slayd still held some of his courage he had gathered from earlier, and threw his caution to the wind.
"How is that any different than what he did to me?" He shouted angrily, throwing his hand at Jyrr and staring up at Guile with a haughtiness he couldn't remember ever having, but seemed familiar all the same.
Guile didn't speak for a long time, the tension thick in the air. When he spoke, it sounded almost as if he had been crying. "The difference is, Heir of Moroloth," he whispered, "that regardless of whether I ever wanted to or not, I love you with a deepness and intensity that I feel down through to my blood and bones, to the bottom of the shriveled thing you take my heart to be, and through to every feather on my wings and stitch in my soul. I can guarantee you," he said with all emotion carefully drained from his voice, "that he does not." He turned then and strode away.
Slayd fell back and thumped to the ground, stunned. He sat in wide-eyed silence, watching his guardian walk away. A thousand emotions were coursing through him, and he wasn't sure which ones were ones that he really felt, and which ones were the ones that were impulse and memory.
Because the memories were coming. He couldn't make sense of them at all, they were muddled and hazy and coming only in fits and starts, but they were there. He bolted to his feet and ran after Guile, leaving Jyrr on the ground looking very confused, angry, and afraid.
Jyrr struggled to his feet. Although the thought of traveling even further with a bitter and enraged Guile made him quail, the thought of being left out here all alone made him even more frightened. So he spread his wings and flew after them, hoping to himself that he wouldn't manage to get himself killed again any time soon.