Chapter 30: Enchanted Ground.
Guile and Slayd traveled over the rocky terrain in silence, keeping to the grass whenever possible and suffering the sharp loose rock only when they had to. The faded trail soon vanished completely, but Guile seemed to know the right way to go. Neither was in much of a mood to talk anymore, and the hours wore on slowly. They covered a lot of ground though, and Slayd began to notice that the dim grey sky above them was darkening, as if night were approaching (or at least a deepening of it. Slayd was still convinced that true day never happened in Dehalen).
As they walked, Slayd’s thoughts ventured into some of his newly-recovered memories. He tried not to think about anything having to do with Guile (which was difficult), and so he found himself thinking about Jyrr and the time that he had spent with him in the Maggot Kingdom. He could not deny that there had been quite happy memories the two of them had shared, and he began to wonder if Jyrr could ever reign in his darker side. He could be quite the gentleman, after all, and Slayd didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t be that way all the time.
He frowned. Where was Jyrr, anyway? He glanced up at Guile and was about to ask, when he saw a satisfied smirk spread across his guardian’s eyeless face.
“He is… out of commission, for the time being.”
Slayd stared open-mouthed at him as they walked. “You… you didn’t kill him again, did you? Did you?”
Guile shook his head, his grin widening. “Not at all. I only… toyed with him a little.”
Anger began to twist Slayd’s insides, and his face flushed. “Why do you do that, Guile? What happened?”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
Guile’s expression didn’t change, but there was a hard edge to his voice. “He fled the citadel of the Locust King, and was aiming to return to the Maggot Kingdom to gather his allies for a coup. I caught up with him. He attacked me, we fought. I raped him. He escaped. Dysz brought him back.”
If the anger hadn’t boiled over before in Slayd’s stomach, it certainly did now. “You what?! Guile, how could you? You’re depraved! How low can you possibly go before you realize that you are no better than he was?”
Guile snarled. “‘No better than he’? Remember who you are and the things you yourself have done before accusing me of depravity. I seem to recall you ordering me to do just the same to him some years ago.”
“How dare you! I am not the same person I was, Guile! And I never want to be that person again. I would never - ”
“But you have. We have had this conversation already, but a few hours ago.”
“Then the Slayd you used to know was evil. He’s dead and gone, Guile, don’t confuse me with him.”
Guile’s eye sockets narrowed. “He is dead, that may be. Regardless, you are one and the same. You will regain your selfish authority before you know it, Slayd. You are already going down that path. You just do not see it.”
It was Slayd’s turn to snarl. “Oh I see it, all right. I see that you would push me to be that way again, but it won’t work. Try your mind games on someone else. Don’t speak to me!”
Guile froze in his tracks, though not because of Slayd’s words. He sniffed the air and his eye sockets widened. “Where have we - Slayd, wait!”
But Slayd had already gone on ahead in a huff, his pace fast and angry. Guile ran after him, catching up quickly and pulling harshly on his arm. Slayd jerked away from Guile and glared at him. He started to say something, but Guile put a finger to his lips and hissed in his ear, “Do not speak, Slayd. Set aside your anger for a moment and listen to me,” his voice was soft but intense, “in our preoccupation with arguing, we have thrown caution to the wind and stumbled upon the outcrop where Loruma lies.”
Slayd’s words died in his throat and he swallowed hard. That did not sound good at all. He made to turn around, but Guile still had a vice-like grip on his arm. “We cannot go back. We have been caught up in the enchantment of this ground. Can you not feel it? Your feet will not obey you, much like they refused in the lair of the Seiorim.”
The muscles underneath Slayd’s skin began to crawl, and he knew Guile was right. He didn’t know exactly how he knew, but there certainly was a powerful spell cast over the ground. Guile released his hold on Slayd’s arm and peered ahead, but they were heading uphill and his sight was limited. “The enchantment he has cast upon this place compels us into his presence.”
Slayd rubbed his arm. Guile gripped too hard. “Then what can we do?” he whispered, “Do you think we can just be very quiet and sneak by him?”
Guile shook his head as if trying to banish unwanted thoughts. Slayd had the impression that the magic cast over this place had much more of an effect on those who passed over it than just their direction. “No. We must be cautious… Slayd, follow my lead. And whatever happens, do not meet his gaze.”
Slayd nodded dumbly and followed behind Guile as he continued slowly forward. The bleak landscape around them felt sinister, somehow. If Slayd hadn’t experienced an uneasy prickling at the back of his neck he would have thought Guile was just toying with him, but Guile seemed very tense as well. Something had his guard up, and it took a lot to make Guile worry. Slayd wondered if they were already under this Loruma’s vigilant eye. He certainly felt like he was being watched.
A strange smell met Slayd’s senses, and as they moved closer it grew into a putrid stench that seemed to color even his vision. A thin, low mist grew all around them, orange and sickening. Slayd covered his face with a hand but it didn’t do anything to lessen the smell. As the reek grew stronger, the rough terrain became even more hazardous. Huge shale boulders barred their way, making it difficult to see very far ahead even when they had crested the next rise. Guile paused every now and then to look all around with a very concentrated look on his face, as though he was searching intently for something. The further along they got, the more intense his concentration and Slayd had a feeling that Guile was getting to be quite worried, after a fashion. It was making Slayd very nervous.
They rounded another looming boulder and Guile seized Slayd’s arm again and dragged him off to the side, pushing him down into a recess in the rock. He crouched low over him and whispered, “He is very near, but he will not come to meet us. We must go to him. We are treading on very dangerous ground here, Slayd. You must keep close.”
Slayd nodded, his eyes wide. “Guile,” he whispered, “Who is Loruma? I don’t recall ever hearing his name. I know my memory is not quite whole yet, but it doesn’t sound familiar at all, not even a little bit.”
“You do not remember Loruma because he had not entered into Dehalen until after you had left, beyond the Veil.”
“But… why is he here?”
Guile’s coarse whisper sounded loud to Slayd’s ears, even though it really was barely audible. “Loruma is Grigora. Not one of the old ones, not by any means. His power is not quite so ancient nor as formidable as the primeval Grigora that our master summoned and defeated. Yet he is still someone whom I would rather avoid, if at all possible.
“His many eyes are said to hold a festering, magnetic magic, which clings like a cold chill to any who meet his gaze. From what I know of him, he fell from the sky a few months after you had disappeared. He remained where he had fallen, and his magic seeped out of him like blood from a wound. This whole area is splattered with it, and he has taken it upon himself to ensure nothing disturbs him as he heals. I assume that once he is whole again he will return to wherever he came from, but that is not certain. What is certain is that he is still injured, because the stench from his open wounds has been wafting all around us.”
Guile’s whispered words were cut short by a thin, trailing wail that pierced through the misty air like a dart through pliant flesh. It made Slayd shudder and reflexively reach for Guile, but he caught himself before he touched him. Instead, he looked cautiously around to see where the sound had come from. Although it had stopped just seconds after it had begun, the moan seemed to linger in the still, thick air as if it were reluctant to dissipate. Guile rested a hand on Slayd’s shoulder and pulled him farther back into the rocky alcove.
“It appears Loruma is well aware of our presence,” Guile whispered. “He does not abide visitors, and he will try to kill us if he can. We must take extraordinary care, Slayd. Follow my lead, and do not speak. Do not meet his gaze.”
Slayd nodded as Guile grasped his hand firmly and stepped out of the recess in the rock. He inched forward through the boulders, picking his way slowly and carefully. But they only made it beyond the next bend before they stopped dead in their tracks.
Ahead of them, slowly creeping and groping its way around the rocks and soot-covered pines, was an immense misshapen hand. Its seven deformed fingers seemed to twist in the air as if they had no bones. It slithered toward where they stood, feeling for anything alive and moving. A horrible, orange-hued stench oozed out of every pore in the appendage, like the smell of something long dead and rotting. It made Slayd want to retch, but he covered his mouth.
They could not retreat because of the enchantment on the ground, so Guile pulled Slayd close and hissed in his ear. “This was not in the plan. Get ready to run – now.”
Before Slayd could protest or even question this apparently suicidal move, Guile had shoved him forward and charged with him, barreling towards certain death. The fingers froze when it sensed their sudden movement, and they bolted by the misshapen limb. Slayd threw a fearful glance behind him just in time to see the hand snap back to life the moment they darted by. The fingers grabbed for them, shuddering and writhing like tentacles. Slayd could feel a wet slime catch about his ankles, but Guile grabbed Slayd around his waist and launched himself into the air. His wings unfurled and he beat them hard, flying straight up.
They shot up into the air with such force that for a moment Slayd could have sworn his heart had been dropped into his feet and his lungs had followed close behind. He gasped and twisted around to cling to Guile’s neck.
But the tentacle hand followed them. It snapped up and snatched at Guile’s legs, narrowly missing its target. It dropped back down to the hazy ground, and Slayd breathed a sigh of relief.
And then the other hands came. They slithered out of the orange oozing miasma below and slammed into Guile with such force that he lost his grip on Slayd, nearly tearing them away from each other (and would have if Slayd had not been clinging to Guile so tightly). Slayd squeezed his eyes as firmly shut as he could, and hoped they wouldn’t fall.
The tentacles reached and grabbed again for Guile, and he jerked and zigzagged in his flight. He aimed high, wings beating so hard his feathers stung at Slayd’s face. But even Guile’s best flying could not avoid all of the writhing limbs that had shot up to grab at them. One huge hand caught a hold of a wing, and another managed to grab Guile around a leg. Slayd heard a sickening, tearing crack! and their wild ascent shuddered to a halt. He heard Guile gasp breathlessly, and he opened his tightly shut eyes to see what was wrong.
Which was a Very Bad Thing to do, because he looked down. He saw a huge, sickly green eye glaring at Guile, hate and betrayal smoldering across its pulsing surface. It swiveled to stare right back at Slayd, an exhaustive anger flickering across its veiny iris. Slayd nearly vomited in his terror.
A brilliant white flash erupted around Slayd, his pendant blazing with light that blinded the immense putrid demon below them. A loud and piercing shriek tore the air, and the tentacles recoiled away from them as quickly as they had come. Slayd clung tightly to Guile, wondering why he felt so numb.
And then they fell.
Slayd awoke to Guile’s face close to his, one of his hands stroking his ribbony hair. Slayd groaned and tried to sit up. His neck and shoulder hurt something awful, and he rubbed at it gingerly. Guile looked worried, and Slayd quickly realized why. He felt a sharp wedge of bone jutting out from his clavicle. He winced as his fingers grazed over the bone, and Guile grabbed his hand. “Careful, Slayd,” he whispered fiercely, “I healed you too quickly and I got careless. But I cannot correct the error just yet, there is no more time. We have to get out of here.”
Slayd would have nodded if his neck hadn’t hurt so much. “Where did that… thing go? I could swear we were going to get killed.”
Guile shook his head. “No time for that. I will tell you later. We must hurry.”
Guile pulled Slayd to his feet and led him quickly down the rough incline. Their descent was hasty, but they could not rush too much for the stones beneath their feet slipped and tumbled along with them, threatening to cause a rockslide. Guile steadied Slayd beside him until the ground leveled out and the stones were replaced with dead grass. The oozing orange stench was a little less repugnant here, and Slayd breathed a sigh of relief. Guile made no sign of relaxing, though. He pressed on quickly, leading Slayd by his hand.
As they walked, Slayd began to feel very tired and very, very sore. He felt as though he were being dragged away from something that very much wanted to keep him there, like a warm bed on a winter morning. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked, trying to banish the feeling from his brain.
Slayd’s eyes trailed to Guile’s back, and his heart lurched a little behind its grated cage. Blood ran down Guile’s spine in little red rivers, and the source of those little rivers was a bloody stump of cracked bone, torn muscle, and matted feathers; what used to be Guile’s left wing.
Slayd stopped, tugging on Guile’s hand. “Guile… What happened? Your wing…”
Guile grunted and pulled Slayd along. “Never mind it. I’ve had worse. This isn’t the first time I have lost one.”
Guile did not pause nor pay any attention to his wound, but continued their trek until the stench of Loruma’s enchantment was faint and far behind them. Slayd wasn’t very good with distances, so he couldn’t be terribly certain how far they had gone. All he knew was that he grew achier and more sensitive with every step that they took, and he couldn’t imagine that Guile was feeling at his best either.
In any case, they only stopped when the ground beneath their feet began to form some semblance of a trail again. Slayd turned his weary gaze to take in his surroundings for the first time in hours, and he realized that they were traveling through a wide valley.
Guile sunk down to the grass next to the rough trail, his breathing labored. “I need to rest, Slayd. I imagine you do as well. Sit.”
Slayd obeyed and sat down gingerly next to his guardian, slipping a careful hand over his shoulder. “What happened, Guile?”
“Nothing you would have wanted to see.” He sighed, his breath shaking a little. “Loruma is still weak and injured, so he could not keep up his assault for long. That and your pendant seemed to want to keep us alive, at least…”
He sat in silence for a while, conjuring up a ribbon of blue magic and rubbing a deep gash on his arm that Slayd hadn’t noticed before. “…After we fell, I struck back at him the best way I could think of. He was already confused by that flash of light, so he retreated quickly. It broke his enchantment long enough for us to escape.”
Guile attempted to slip a hand over the broken bone in Slayd’s neck, but he shied away and started talking. “But how did you manage to fight back? I mean, it’s not that I do not think you capable, it’s just… He is so very large, and you said yourself that he is someone even you would like to avoid.”
Guile nodded, taking the hint and giving up trying to finish healing Slayd. “Indeed. But you forget I have a great capacity to consume my adversaries, and - demon though he may be - Loruma is not an exception. Apparently it was enough to force him to retreat.”
“Oh…” Slayd winced a little, remembering Guile’s gaping maw embedded in his torso. Even now Slayd noticed a bit of gore dripping off of the shiny bits of teeth, still visible in Guile’s skin.
“However,” Guile stretched his remaining wing stiffly and stood up. “Even though we are beyond his enchantment now, I feel uneasy staying for too long in such close proximity to his ground. Let us be on our way.”