Chapter 29: A Matter of Trust.
Morning came far too early for Slayd, although it wasn’t sunlight that awoke him. (It was never sunlight, after all). Instead he found himself startled awake by the strange, screaming cry of a wild animal some distance away. He jolted upright and glanced all around, groping behind him for Guile’s arm. He shook the sleep from his brain and scowled, remembering belatedly that his guardian was no longer with him.
Whatever creature had made the awful sound was nowhere to be seen, and Slayd slowly got up and rubbed his sore joints. “It has been so very long since I have slept in a comfy bed,” he mused, “that I am beginning to wonder if I will ever feel that kind of restfulness again.” His bones cracked as he stretched, and he sighed wearily. “Another day on the road, it looks like. Now where did I put that map…”
He dug through the pack that Polli had made for him, pulling out the wrinkled piece of paper. “Well according to the Locust King’s directions, I need to be going southeast along the mountains until I come to this valley. I have no idea which direction I am facing since there is no sun to tell by, but I suppose I shall just have to keep the mountains at my left and hope that it will be good enough.”
He folded the map back in his pack and pulled out one of the packages of food tucked inside. He adjusted his pack on his shoulders and set off again down the overgrown trail, chewing mechanically as he walked. He kept a sharp eye out for any wild animals that might still be lingering in the area, but he didn’t see any, nor did he hear another eerie cry. It reassured him a little, although he was much too worried about whether or not he was going to be able to find this valley to be very happy about the absence of beasts that might want to eat him. He paused to peer up at the looming mountains ahead, wondering just where exactly this valley was and how narrow it might be, and if there was any chance he might miss it entirely as he wound his way through the hills and get lost along the way.
He walked for what seemed like forever, the foothills growing steadily steeper and strewn with more loose rock. He found himself stumbling if he went too quickly, and the path was getting precipitous enough in some places that he started to worry that he might take a bad fall if he slipped. This trail certainly was not as convenient as it once was.
Slayd froze in place, mind racing. Since when had the Locust King ever mentioned a trail to follow? There wasn’t even one on the map! How did he even know he was supposed to be following this path in the first place?
Overwhelmed, Slayd sat himself down upon a flattened boulder and turned his gaze back to the landscape behind him. His travels had brought him quite high up, and he could see for miles around. Even so, he could not see the Locust King’s citadel, nor the gravel road that the trail had once been. He thought he could almost make out a thin ribbon of blue and brown that might have been Polli’s creek, but he couldn’t be certain. “Oh, what a mess I might have gotten myself into. I do hope that I did not just make a very big mistake.”
The chilly air blew a gust of wind at him in response, and he shivered. “I almost wish Guile was here… He would know where to go, and how to find the valley, and where to go from there…”
A part of Slayd half expected Guile to materialize out of thin air upon the mentioning of his name, but nothing like that happened. He sighed. “Well, I can’t go back now. And there’s a valley that needs finding.” He got up, brushed himself off, and carefully began to pick his way along the rocky hillside.
Even though he was trying to be as cautious about his footing as he could be, he still seemed to stumble against a gnarled root or trip on a loose rock every couple of meters. The wind was starting to howl around him, biting at his nose and the tips of his ears. He tucked himself up in the Locust King’s mantle and the rough clothes that Polli had given him, but even with the extra padding the sharp wind still managed to find his skin.
It was several more hours of carefully hiking up the trail, slipping, sliding and catching himself as he went. He had to stop and catch his breath after one particularly scary close call, so he pressed his back to a rock and sunk down on his haunches. He scanned the trail ahead, noticing with a small rising hope that he was beginning to go downhill again. The mountains still rose inexorably ahead, and he sighed. “I am probably just at the crest of this foothill, is all. Still, I might as well see if there is anything there to be hopeful about.” He dragged himself to his feet and wound his way down, giving wide berth to thick brambles. He rounded a big jagged stone and studied the trail again.
A hazy patch of darkness was nestled in the rock up ahead, and he squinted to try to see what it was. It almost seemed to move, but he couldn’t really make out any shape to it. He slowly edged his way closer, inch by inch, until he could peer at it from behind another rock and some tall grass.
Dark green briars were waving in the swift wind, but their needle-like leaves made no sound. They bordered what looked like a tunnel, only Slayd could see that the rock above it did not close it in entirely. The stone created such an extreme overhang that it seemed to enclose the gorge, making it appear at first glance like it were a cavern. The hazy patch of darkness he had seen was the entrance to this place.
Slayd cautiously crept closer to the briars and peered warily into the darkness. No sound came from inside, not even the wind that surely would have howled through the spaces in the rock (that is, if it had been a normal gorge). Slayd frowned. The Locust King hadn’t said anything about danger in the valley, only beyond it. Nor had he mentioned that it would be so narrow. There was definitely something fishy about this place… It seemed magical.
Slayd sighed, wishing he didn’t have to make uninformed decisions like this. But the Locust King surely would have warned him of danger if there was any, so he prepared himself to descend as gingerly as he could into the gorge. He readjusted the pack on his shoulders and stepped through, keeping a hand on the nearest craggy wall for balance.
The air was still and hot inside, as if there might be some sort of steam vent somewhere deep within. The humidity seemed to cloy at Slayd’s senses, and he found himself rubbing at his watery eyes. “What a strange place…”
He saw flutters of movement off to his right, and he jumped, fixing his gaze on the spot. He saw nothing more move, but the prickles on the back of his neck told him that something was wrong here. Perhaps he should go back. He made up his mind to turn around.
As his footfalls crunched against the loose rock on the floor, a puzzled frown slowly spread across his face. Shouldn’t he be ascending if he was going back? He glanced behind him and sure enough, he could see a spot of sky that told him where the entrance to the gorge was. He looked down at his feet, wondering why they hadn’t obeyed him when he had told them to turn around.
That was when he felt a presence behind him, and suddenly turning around seemed like a Very Bad Idea. An oppressive heat fell in waves against his back and he broke out in a shuddering sweat. He could feel thousands and thousands of eyes staring down on him, turning him inside out with their gaze. The wet sounds of heavy breathing close at the back of his neck made every inch of his skin tingle and crawl. A feather-light touch ghosted across his shoulder, and suddenly Slayd had found his feet. He tore ahead through the gorge, not daring to look behind him and see what sort of hideous, malformed monster had materialized from the dark to devour him. He squeezed his eyes shut and cried out as he ran blindly, deeper into the darkness of the gorge.
Guile awoke to soft snoring close to his chin. He tried to sit up, but Dysz had wormed his head onto Guile’s chest at some point during the night, and now he lay there dead to the world, nestled contentedly against the feathers of his wings. Guile sighed and prodded his shoulder but he remained sound asleep, only adjusting himself more comfortably on his living pillow.
No response save for a groan amidst the snores. Guile practically twitched in irritation. “Dysz. Wake up. I need to move on.”
Dysz groaned again and stretched lazily, peering up at Guile with a mischievous twinkle his good eye. “I’m sure yer heartfelt reunion with yer lil brat can wait a bit longer, don’ cha think?”
“I will not have you delaying me.”
Dysz laughed, sounding like someone had dropped marbles on tile. “I think I’ve already done that, eh? C'mon, why can’t ya let me have any fun? I bet ya’d enjoy it.”
Guile scowled and he jostled Dysz off of his chest, but he just rolled over onto his feathery wing instead. “I swear I have no idea why I tolerate your presence.”
Dysz flashed a lopsided grin and pulled himself against Guile’s hip, practically purring. “Because ya’d never live a lil without me there to goad ya on.”
“Ah. Right.” he said dryly. He curled an arm around Dysz’s waist and gazed at the sky, noting that the heavy grey clouds had returned. “I thought you said you were leaving in the morning.”
Dysz grunted. “Yeah, so? I – unlike some people I know – don’ like ta split before my date wakes up.”
Guile shoved Dysz away from him and sat up, scowling. “I am not your lover, Mosquito King.”
“Funny, we’ve certainly fucked enough.”
“And ya like it that way.”
“I would think I would have better taste than making a lover out of you. Isn’t it about time you were going?”
“Ouch, Guile. Bring a man down.” Dysz yawned and cracked his knuckles as he stretched lazily, getting up and offering Guile his hand. He took it, and the two of them began walking together down the overgrown trail.
“I’ll see ya to the rise of the next foothill, and then I’m gone. A' right?”
Guile nodded. “Where will you be wandering?”
“Nowhere near here. Figured it’s about time I paid Vanessa 'nother visit. Hear she misses me.”
“The Painted Lady? She’s practically catatonic, Dysz.”
The other man’s gravelly laugh echoed in the open space around them and he thumped Guile on the back. “That she is, prey. But she’s close to home.”
“Don’t call me that. And I thought you didn’t care what went on in the Maggot Kingdom. Don’t tell me you are worried about the possible coup d'état that Jyrr was planning against the Maggot King.”
“Not worried, nah. And I already told ya I’m not out ta do him any favors. But there’s a lot of fun in snoopin' about. I’m curious.”
“I hope your curiosity keeps you entertained, then,” Guile said, a slow smile teasing the corner of his mouth.
Dysz shrugged. “I’ll be far enough away to be outta yer hair – pardon the expression,” he rubbed the top of Guile’s head and laughed when he glowered at him, “So if ya really don’ want me meddlin' in yer business ya should be happy. Right?”
Guile glanced up at him and nodded slowly. “…Right. What, should I thank you?”
“Ha ha. Ya know I don’t do much for anyone but me anyway. Well, here we are. ’s been a blast, but I think I’ll run. Gotta go find my horse. Catch ya around.” He curled an arm around Guile and kissed him before sauntering down the hill, waving a hand over his shoulder in farewell.
Guile watched Dysz wander through the thorny scrub, away from the path and into the craggy foothills of the wild lands. He turned back to the trail only when he was gone and out of sight.
Slayd bolted through the bottom of the rocky gorge, heedless of where he was going. Whatever was chasing him was hot in pursuit, and he could still hear its wet breath behind him, feel it reach out a clawed and misshapen hand to catch at his legs as he ran. He stumbled against a loose stone in the darkness, scraping up his knees on the sharp granite as he fell. He scrambled back up to shaky feet only to fall again, tumbling head over heels down an incline he didn’t know was there. He staggered when he hit the bottom, disoriented and terrified. A sharp pain shot through the side of his left knee, making him clutch at his leg and cry. “I – I’m going to die here…”
He heard a shuffling, scraping sound at the top of the precipice he had fallen from and looking up he saw a disjointed, amorphous shadow swaying back and forth, darker than the gloom all around him. Humid air curled down to meet him, and he quailed in fear. He backed up against the rocky debris, desperately searching the darkness with wild eyes for any place he could hide. He spotted a crevice in the overhanging stone just meters away, and he lunged for it. He wedged himself as far back underneath the rocky outcrop as he could fit his small body, and prayed to whatever gods might still be listening to let him get out of this alive.
A piercing, keening cry rent through the heavy air and sent shivers straight through to Slayd’s bones. A shadow fell over the opening in his hiding place, and suddenly it seemed intolerably hot and moist. He dared not move.
For long moments the shadow lingered about the crevice, and every now and again Slayd imagined he could see a claw or a writhing boneless limb slip by. Another howl tore into his ears and he clapped his hands over them, tears and maggots streaming out of his eyes. The cry was so shrill it hurt.
But then the deep shadow vanished from the tiny crack that Slayd could see out of, leaving nothing but the darkness of the gorge. But the heaviness in the air did not go away. Slayd lay there in the cramped crevice, the stones cutting into his sore shins and the half-healed gashes that Guile had given him. He cried silently, chest heaving in a valiant attempt to keep quiet. He didn’t know how long he lay there, but he didn’t dare try to check whether the shadowy monster had truly left him or not.
The silence of the humid air was interrupted by the clattering of rocks outside the fissure he was hiding in. Slayd’s eyes grew wide as another shadow fell over the narrow opening, and a clawed hand curled around the rocky overhang. He whimpered and dug his back further into the sharp stone behind him, wishing he could just vanish.
The voice sounded so familiar, he shook his head and refused to believe he had heard it. The clawed hand extended out to him, and he flinched away from it.
He slowly blinked his wide, teary eyes and stared at the hand. It couldn’t possibly be him, could it? He edged hesitantly forward, peering intently through the crack in an effort to see if Guile was indeed attached to the claws that beckoned him.
“Take my hand, Slayd.”
He slipped his fingers into the hand gingerly, and found himself drawn out of the crevice and pulled into strong grey arms. Guile held him close against his chest and smoothed down his ribbony hair. “This was most definitely not the way to go, Slayd,” he whispered softly, and Slayd had never been more relieved to hear his guardian’s raspy voice. He found himself being picked up gently, and Guile carried him out of the humid darkness of the gorge.
They emerged through the briars and back out into the biting wind of the foothills. Guile set his charge down and knelt beside him, tilting his chin up and rubbing a thumb under his eyes, brushing away tears and a stray maggot. “Do not ever enter the lair of a Seiorim, Slayd. They are strange and ravenous creatures who will not hesitate to devour you, regardless of your status. Are you all right?”
Slayd started to nod slowly, but it turned into a shake of his head. He rubbed his bloodied knees and stared up at his guardian with huge, watery eyes. “I… I hurt…”
Guile pursed his lips as he looked Slayd over. “Let’s get you to somewhere a little more sheltered, shall we?” He scooped him up again and carried him down the hill, searching out a place that could give them a little refuge from the relentless winds. They found it near a tiny grove of the strange-looking twisted pines that seemed to be covered in soot. Their thick needles and branches formed an unusually effective wind breaker. Guile was careful not to settle Slayd underneath their branches however; instead he laid him down just beyond, in a patch of long brown grass.
“Rest here for a moment and let me have a look at you.” He reached a hand for Slayd’s shoulder but he flinched away, his doubts about his guardian returning now that he was out of danger.
Guile steadily stared him down, his expression unreadable to Slayd. Fidgeting a little, Slayd finally relented and leaned forward, allowing Guile to inspect his bloodied knees. The blue threads of Guile’s whispered magic slipped around him, seeking out his injuries and slowly closing them up. As Guile murmured his chant, they snaked their way up Slayd’s body and through his shirt. Slayd could feel the pulse of the magic as it slowly healed the half-closed wounds Guile had given him days ago, and for the first time since then he felt whole again.
He swallowed and looked up at his guardian. “Do not think I don’t appreciate you coming and saving me, but… I thought,” he said hesitantly, “I thought I told you to go back to the Locust King.”
Guile grunted, a long-suffering look passing over his eyeless face. “You never told me to stay there.”
“Why did you come for me?”
Guile shook his scarred head. “I will not abandon the vows that I made to you or to our master so easily.”
Slayd shifted uncomfortably on the ground, and his stomach growled. He sighed, only just then realizing that the pack Polli had given him had been lost somewhere in the Seiorim’s gorge.
Guile wordlessly handed him a couple of thin strips of dried meat he had pulled from one of his pockets. Slayd raised an eyebrow before accepting it.
“From Dysz. He showed up again after you left.”
Slayd nodded absently, his eyes wandering over the foothills around them. “Do you know where this valley is that the Locust King told me to find? I do not know the right way to go.”
“There are still a few more miles left to go before you will reach that pass. As you approach, it seems to be just another dip in the foothills, so it is easily missed.”
“Oh.” Slayd craned his neck ahead of them, but all the foothills looked the same to him. “How will we know how to find it? Or will we just know when we get there?”
Guile’s voice grew slightly mocking, but his face held a strange melancholy. “‘We’? I thought you didn’t trust me, Slayd.”
Slayd winced at Guile’s words. “I… I don’t trust you. But… I don’t think I can do this without you.”
Guile regarded his charge silently for a long moment before turning his gaze up to the rugged mountains. “…Do you remember a time, a very long time ago, when I first drew your blood? It was but a few years after we had first met.”
Slayd shook his head. “If what I know of you is true, then we first met right when I was born. Or made, rather. I do not think anyone would remember much from their first few years.”
Guile nodded slowly, and again several minutes passed before he spoke again. “You were prone to wandering. I was still adjusting to my new role as your guardian, and made many mistakes. I left you alone for too long.”
He picked at the grass with one hand, and Slayd watched his long fingers smooth over the blades just like he often did with his own ribbony hair. “You had wandered away from me, and when I found you at last you were caught up in the roots of an angry midgewood tree. I had no time to explain to you what I had to do, and it was a long time before you finally understood. I had to draw your blood over the tree’s roots before it would let you go. You did not allow me near you for weeks after that.”
Slayd’s eyes still lingered on Guile’s hand. “That… that is nothing like what happened a few days ago, Guile.”
The two of them watched the heavy clouds roll swiftly through the dark sky, driven by the wind and their own momentum. Guile leaned back, propping himself on his elbows and closing his eyelids over his empty sockets. “Do you remember your first visit to the Maggot Kingdom?”
“…I think so.”
“You were about twelve years old then. You looked much like you do now, in fact. Small differences aside,” and he leaned up and ruffled Slayd’s red ribbony hair gently, drawing a small smile almost unwillingly from Slayd’s face.
Slayd lay back on the grass next to Guile, pillowing his head behind his hands. “That was… that was when I first met Jyrr, wasn’t it?”
“And – and that was also the same time that he… he…”
“That he raped you and tried to kill you? No. That was many years after that.”
Slayd flinched at Guile’s blunt words, but he nodded. “I didn’t think I remembered being that young when it happened. I am still adjusting to the idea that I really am not twelve years old right now.”
Guile chuckled a quiet unhappy laugh. “I do hate to say it, but Jyrr was not an instant malefactor. Even I could appreciate his charms at first. I do not want you to think that I would allow you to believe something about him that was not true, simply because I loathe him. Particularly since I hope you will recover all of your memory soon enough, and I do not wish for my own recollections to contradict your memories.”
Slayd nodded, staying silent so Guile might continue on wherever this train of thought was leading. It seemed Guile was in a rare talking mood.
“We had visited the Maggot Kingdom many times over the course of many years before he made the mistake of attacking you. But even before that, my suspicions about him had begun to grow. I have already told you of that.”
Guile voice began to grow bitter. “You didn’t listen to me then, though I tried to get you to understand the danger. There was a last conversation you and I had before you ran off with him on your final tryst. It was brief.”
Slayd fidgeted a little, glad that he was already looking at the sky and not at Guile’s face.
“Do you remember what I said to you?”
“…You asked me if I trusted you. I said yes.”
“And what did you do then?”
Slayd furrowed his brow. While his memories of that time were there, they were still spotty. “I… Don’t remember.”
“You went off with him anyway, and nearly got yourself killed. Afterward you asked me why I hadn’t done anything sooner, and I broke you for your attitude. Do you remember what happened after that?”
Slayd suddenly felt very uncomfortable lying on the grass, and he shifted around, keenly aware of Guile’s eyeless gaze on him. “I… I don’t know.”
Guile’s voice grew very quiet. “And then you broke me for my audacity. Had you not commanded Moroloth’s healers to put me back together carefully, I would still bear the heavy scars you gave me.”
Slayd hid his face in his hands and shook his head. “I don’t want to remember that, Guile. I could never be so cruel - ”
“You can be, and you are. Only these fine sensibilities you have acquired since you awakened beyond the Veil make your cruelty take on much subtler hues. Do not tell me that I am the only one who turns on those closest to him when they do something they dislike. Look to yourself first before making your accusations, little one.”
Guile’s voice was absent of any severity, and carried only a quiet melancholy to it. He leaned over and caught a strand of Slayd’s ribbony hair in his fingers, fixing Slayd with a stare. Slayd could swear there was sadness hiding behind his hollow sockets. “Do you remember what I asked you in the courtyard of Incavius’s temple, just before I gave you this?”
Slayd frowned, trying to recall the events that seemed to have happened so long ago. “You… you asked me if I trusted you.”
“And it will not be the last time. I find myself asking you the same question over and over. And now I have to ask it yet again. Do you trust me?” His voice had dropped to nearly a whisper.
Slayd sat in silence for a long while, refusing to meet Guile’s stare. He knew he didn’t want to, but… At length he raised his eyes and said slowly, “I can try, Guile. But only after a fashion. I trust your judgment, and I trust that you would lead me to wherever I need to go… but I do not trust you.”
Guile sneered a little, but the melancholy in his expression was as strong as ever. “Then that will have to do.” He got up and extended a hand to his charge. “Follow me, Slayd. I will lead you on your proper path.”