Chapter 28: Foothills.

  Lieron sighed to himself and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he rushed down the hall, the lengthy schedule for the evening clutched tight in one hand. Perhaps now that all of these “guests” had left, daily life could finally go back to normal. He hated it when unplanned things happened around the citadel; it always meant that the Locust King would be even more distracted and difficult to manage than usual. And really, what had he been thinking, bringing the Mosquito King here? Though he may be someone’s idea of a king himself, ruffians such as he certainly did not belong in proper society, much less explicitly invited. At least he hadn’t stayed long.
   He turned the corner and nearly ran right into Dysz.
   “Hey there now, watch where yer goin' kiddo. Somebody gonna die or somethin'?”
   Lieron nearly jumped right out of his skin and backpedaled into the opposite wall, clutching his chest. “Don’t do that! What – what are you doing here?”
   Dysz cocked his head at the other man and jerked his thumb behind him, indicating the double doors down the hall that led to the courtyard. “I got a lil present for the Locust King. Can’t say I was impressed with his idea of a hunt, though.”
   Lieron brushed imaginary lint off of his uniform and said stiffly, “I will inform him. Thank you.”
   Dysz crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, grinning. “Yeah, ya do that. I’ll wait right here while ya go get him.”
   The frazzled man looked down his nose at the Mosquito King and sighed in exasperation. “Fine, fine. Just don’t touch anything.” He turned on his heels and marched down the hall, muttering under his breath.
   He wasn’t gone more than a few minutes, and returned with a scowl on his face and the Locust King in tow.
   “Oh Dysz! What a lovely surprise! Didn’t you just leave us early this morning? What brings you back so soon?” He beamed at his guest and shook his hand enthusiastically.
   “Forgot already, eh? I’ve got yer lil fly prince outside. Ya want him or what?”
   The Locust King stared at him vacantly for a moment before nodding. “Oh yes, yes. My, now that was fast, wasn’t it? I suppose he didn’t give you any trouble at all to find then?”
   Dysz shrugged and led the way back outside. “Nah. He was way too easy to find. I reckon kids like 'im never learn to cover their tracks or their scent. Gave me a bit of a scuffle when I tried ta snag him, though.”
   “Oh dear. Are you all right?”
   “‘Course I am.” He ducked past the brace of guards at the drawbridge and made his way around a rampart, stopping where a massive six-legged horse was pawing impatiently at the ground. “Jyrr though, he ain't lookin' too good.”
   Draped across the horse’s bare back was Jyrr, bound and gagged and looking decidedly worse for wear. He had a nasty welt over one shoulder, and blood was dripping from his temple. He flinched when he heard voices, and the Locust King could see fear in his eyes when he looked at Dysz.
   “Oh dear, he didn’t fare very well at all.” The Locust King edged up to the horse’s side, careful not to move very quickly. He patted Jyrr on the shoulder that looked a little less swollen and smiled gently at him. “Don’t worry, we’ll fix you right up and you’ll be as good as new in no time.”
   Dysz snickered, his strange gravelly laugh earning a shudder from Jyrr. “Well he’s yer problem now. I don’ care what ya do with 'im. Where’s Guile?”
   The Locust King stared open-mouthed at him, and only an “uh…” came out.
   “Right. He went after that little monster again, didn’t he?”
   The Locust King looked a little more confused than usual. “What monster?”
   Dysz coughed out another laugh and grinned. “Ya never cease ta amaze me, Oedaleus. I meant Slayd. He went after Slayd again, didn’t he?”
   The Locust King nodded. “Oh yes! He left early this morning, not too long after you did, I believe. Hm. I think he was headed in the direction of the Beetle Kingdom.”
   Dysz had grabbed Jyrr by the back of his shirt and hauled him off of his horse, dragging him over to the pair of guards and dumping him off in their hands. “Right. Seems like I’m done here, so I guess I’ll be goin' then.”
   The Locust King waved the guards off to the infirmary with Jyrr and turned back to Dysz. “Where are you off to? You could stay for dinner if you like, you are more than welcome to. I do enjoy your company very much, you know.”
   “Nah, thanks but no thanks. I think I’m gonna keep Guile company for a bit, at least until he catches up with that lil brat of his. See if I can get anythin' interestin' ta happen on the way.”
   The Locust King smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well I wish you interesting travels, then! Thank you for your assistance with Jyrr, you know it is greatly appreciated, by both Guile and I. It is always good to see you. Please come by again soon if you have any spare time.”
   Dysz grinned and jumped onto his horse, barely reining him in from bolting right then and there. “I’ll do that. Catch ya 'round.” He loosed his horse and they raced away. The Locust King waved at Dysz’s already vanishing form, a smile serenely nestled on his face. “He is such a nice man.”
   The mountains had crept in beside Slayd far sooner than he had anticipated. No more were the gently rolling hills and half-remembered crumbling walls interrupting the long grass. He was in the foothills now; the even gravel road had turned into a ragged dirt path, and in this much rockier soil the grass was now accompanied by thorny brush and pine trees that looked as though they were covered in soot. Boulders and loose rock interrupted the rough path far more often than Slayd liked. He found himself having to choose his footing much more carefully for fear that he might fall and tumble down the steeper inclines. Although he had gotten very far in such a short amount of time, his pace was beginning to slow.
   He was also growing weary. It had been hours and hours since he had left Polli and her creek, and although the rain had dried out he was still chilly. The breeze had grown into a sharp wind, smacking him in the face whenever he rounded a boulder or a sharp turn in the trail. It seemed to be getting colder, and Slayd assumed it was because the sky was clearing once again as the stars came out. He gazed up at the heavens as he walked. “I have to admit, whenever the skies clear I believe that the Locust Kingdom has some of the most amazingly beautiful stars I’ve ever seen.”
   His eyes widened a little as he watched the skies a few moments longer. A brilliantly shining sliver of a moon emerged from behind the last shred of cloud cover, bathing the whole world in a cold blue glow. “Oh wow… I think I have only seen you once before. It seems like such a long time ago.”
   The moonlight shone so brightly it illuminated the land better than during the bleak facsimile of day. It picked up Slayd’s spirits even though he was very tired. He managed to press on under the sliver of moon for a couple more hours, and he almost forgot that he had been going nonstop for so long. But it wasn’t fatigue that finally stopped his pace. He rounded a patch of thorny bushes at the top of a particularly high hill, and froze when he took in his surroundings.
   He could see a long ways from this height, even as far as the tops of the next several foothills ahead of him. The mountains themselves still loomed high beyond, but their presence was forgotten at the moment. What drew his sudden attention were the creatures stealing through the grass less than a hundred meters down the hill.
   Silent and fluid, they looked like they might be some sort of panther… had they any skin for Slayd to tell. Their muscles lay out deep red and bare, as if they had been skinned alive. Their heads looked like nothing more than naked skulls, tongues lolling from between slavering jaws. Slayd counted six of them, all moving across his path and to the south.
   He ducked back behind the leafless scrub he had just passed and peered through its thorny stems. The creatures didn’t seem to have noticed him, and he breathed a silent sigh of relief. He slipped a hand inside of his shirt, feeling for the dagger that Jyrr had given him to make sure he still had it with him.
   That is certainly one thing I can thank him for, he thought anxiously, although I do not know how effective I will be if the time ever comes that I do indeed need to use it. I hope I will not have to find out.
   He waited a very long time for the predators to slip out of sight, and even then he still waited. He had no way of knowing if they were just beyond the rise of the next hill, waiting to pounce on him if he wandered in their direction. His nerves were on edge, but he tried to make himself calm down and force his feet to move again.
   Once he managed to get moving his adrenaline kicked in, and he began to run. He didn’t stop for nearly half an hour before he finally collapsed at the base of an outcrop of shale. He tucked himself as best he could underneath its slight overhang, too exhausted to be nervous any longer. His eyelids dragged themselves insistently down and before Slayd could adjust himself to feel any more comfortable or secure, he had fallen asleep.
   It was a good thing for Guile that Slayd was easy to track. He knew that he would not stray from the convenience of the gravel road unless he was forced to, and from what little he had read over Slayd’s shoulder from the scrap of map he had received from the Locust King, it seemed as if he would follow the remnants of the road when it breached the wild lands. His master always did like to choose the easiest path.
   …His master. “He is changed. He certainly seems like a portion of his old self, although I don’t think he realizes it himself. He has discovered – at least for a moment, that is – that he can draw on his authority.”
   He sighed and shook his scarred head. “But that doesn’t mean he is back to what he once was. I should not even entertain such a vague hope that he will ever be the same again. That Slayd is dead.”
   He fell back into a melancholy silence and increased his stride. His pace was already fast; if he kept it up, he could probably catch up to Slayd by very early the next morning.
   The stars were out by the time he reached the creek, and the appearance of rare moonlight made him pause on the opposite bank and gaze at the sky. It truly was beautiful. “One thing we have always shared in common,” he mused, “watching the skies when the stars were out…”
   He stretched out a hand and passed his fingers over the crescent moon, watching the shadows on his skin.
   “…Nice night.”
   Guile startled and whipped around. “Who – Dysz?”
   The Mosquito King stood several meters behind, still on the far bank. His horse was restlessly shifting from one foot to another, pawing at the ground. “Ya know we shouldn’t keep meetin' like this. What will high society think?”
   Guile scowled and crossed his arms. “What are you doing out here?”
   “Well nice to see ya too.” He smacked his horse on its rump, sending it galloping off into the fields. He vaulted over the stream and landed next to Guile, nudging him with an elbow. “Ya couldn’t wait for me ta get back? Remind me never to do ya any more favors any time soon.”
   The glare on Guile’s face deepened. “You’re the one who wanted to do me a favor, Dysz. I never wanted you to get involved in any of this in the first place.” He turned and continued walking, though his pace was slower than it had been before he stopped.
   Dysz shrugged and draped an arm around Guile’s shoulders as he walked, grinning at his sour expression. “Any reason why? Or shall I just chalk it up ta ya never wanting me to have any fun?”
   “You know I hate it when you meddle in my business.”
   Dysz chuckled. “Oh ho, is that so? I seem ta recall ya askin' me ta help with yer 'business’ the last time ya lost track of it.”
   If Guile’s scowl could have gotten any deeper, it would have swallowed his whole head. “And I seem to recall that you offered to help before I ever even asked in the first place. And you wouldn’t leave me alone until I conceded to your beleaguering questions. Why will you never leave me be?”
   “Aw, ya know ya really need to lighten up. How many years have I been tellin' ya that?” He nipped at Guile’s jaw line and snickered. “'sides, ya never answered my question. Why don' you want me involved?”
   Guile shoved him away, increasing his stride a little. “Lacking the desire to put up with you is not answer enough?”
   “Aw, c'mon. Ya know I’m not that bad.”
   Guile sighed, resigning himself again to an arm draped over his shoulders. “Then suffice it to say that having you any more closely involved in this little disaster could spell far different things than pleasant times. You know what could draw nigh if – when the Lich King is revived.”
   Dysz’s grin faded slowly away and he tilted his head to search Guile’s expression. “Ya honestly expect the worst for everythin', don' cha? Ya and I can take care of ourselves, Guile.”
   Guile shrugged, not bothering to answer. The two companions walked on in a silence that slowly slipped into being comfortable. The terrain grew steeper as they delved into the wild lands, skirting boulders and thorny brush. The sliver of moon over their heads streamed down its brilliant blue light obligingly, making everything practically glow beneath the stars.
   “…It really is a beautiful night.”
   Guile glanced up at Dysz, whose voice was uncharacteristically quiet. He raised an eyebrow.
   Dysz smiled and poked Guile’s forehead. “Ya of all people should know that contrary to popular belief, I can in fact appreciate beauty.”
   Guile prodded him back with an elbow in his side. “I know that. It doesn’t mean I’m used to it.”
   Dysz’s grin broadened. “Eh? I would think ya would be one of the few who would be. Particularly since - ”
   “Don’t start speaking nonsense, Dysz.”
   The other man shrugged. “Have it yer way. Do ya intend on walkin' all night, or do ya actually plan on sleepin' any time soon? Yer tired.”
   “No, I’m not. I could continue for a while. I want to catch up to Slayd as quickly as possible.”
   Dysz chuckled and shoved his shoulder, tangling his hand in Guile’s feathers. “Yeah, yeah. Come on, I don’ see why we can’t have a bit of a shut-eye at the top of this hill. I’ll be leavin' in the mornin' anyway. Don’ wanna interrupt yer heartfelt reunion an' all.”
   Guile sighed and conceded to the other man, flopping down on the grass beside the overgrown trail and tucking his hands behind his head. Dysz tossed his hat on the ground and made a pillow out of Guile’s stomach, stretching and yawning lazily.
   Guile snorted and dug a clawed finger into Dysz’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t recommend that, you know.”
   Dysz just rolled his eyes and made himself more comfortable. “Eh. I trust ya.”
   “Since when?”
   Dysz just grinned up at the stars and closed his eyes. The sharp wind bothered neither of them, its whistling voice lulling both of them to the threshold of sleep. Guile was just about to drift off when Dysz’s voice crept quietly to his ears.
   “…I still dream of ya.”


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