Chapter 31: A Persistent Apparition.
Even though the valley was wide and gently sloping, it was slow going since both Slayd and Guile were injured. They had to pause on many occasions, and despite his own injuries Slayd was becoming more and more worried about Guile the further they traveled. He didn’t seem to heed his wounds at all, even though he stumbled as they walked.
Slayd touched his hand. “Guile? Should we stop for a moment so you can heal your wing? You’re hurt pretty badly.”
Guile just grunted and shook him off. “I’m fine. There is no restoring it anyway. In any event, I will not stop until we pass the boundary stone that marks the end of the borderlands and the threshold of the Beetle Kingdom. It cannot be far.”
Slayd nodded mutely and fell back into step behind him. And truly it was not far before Guile stopped suddenly, nearly causing Slayd to run into his bloodied back. He pointed a long claw at a crumbling monument further down the sloping ground. “His boundary stones have eyes, Slayd. They will not allow anyone to enter the realm of the Beetle King without his knowledge.”
Slayd fingered the pendant around his neck doubtfully. “Are… are we welcome?”
His guardian snorted, and Slayd got the distinct impression the Guile couldn’t believe what he had just asked him. “You have always been welcome in the Beetle Kingdom, Slayd. Nothing has changed. Come.”
They passed beside the decaying monument, Slayd flinching a little as he glanced across its engraved surface. Many eyes were indeed carved into it, and their gaze seemed to follow him as they passed by. He could feel a sort of enchantment run over his form as they crossed the threshold between one kingdom and the next, and he shuddered. He hoped Guile was right about the Beetle King.
They traveled on, and Slayd’s anxiety about his guardian was growing with each step that they took. Guile stumbled frequently and blood oozed unabated from the torn wing, making Slayd wonder how he could possibly still be standing. He quite probably should have passed out from loss of blood by now.
Slayd was just about to stop and voice his concerns, when Guile gestured to him and pointed weakly down the sloping valley. “We shall have a bit of respite from this tiresome hike now, I think.”
Slayd followed his hand with his eyes, gaze inching over the view of long brown grass and shale outcrops. His sight arrived at what appeared at first to be a slowly moving brown creek and he frowned. But it quickly dawned on Slayd that if it was a body of water, then why would it be crawling on top of the ground? He refocused his eyes and they widened in surprise. It wasn’t a creek at all. It was an immense, creeping worm, sliding its way along the valley floor. It had to be over two meters wide, and he could see no beginning or end to the creature. It stretched far off into the distance, following the contour of the valley. If he craned his vision in the opposite direction, he could see part of it creeping up out of the ground. Guile grabbed him by the hand. “Come, Slayd. This is our train.”
They approached the worm by way of a large piece of shale that had heaved itself out of the ground at an angle, enabling them to climb on top of it to reach the creature’s back. Even in their condition, they managed the jump from the shale onto the back of the worm without incident. Slayd was pleasantly surprised to see that it was slightly flat, so he could sit down and not worry about falling off. Guile eased himself carefully down, grunting a little in pain. Slayd looked worriedly at him, but Guile waved away his concern.
“I will be quite all right, Slayd. It is yourself that you should worry about. That splinter of bone looks painful. Let me heal you.”
Slayd squirmed. He still did not want to trust Guile, so he shrugged a little with his good shoulder and tried to sound indifferent. “It doesn’t hurt very badly… How far is the Beetle King from where we are now?”
Slayd sighed. “You know… I do wish I could gather all of my memory together. This piece-by-piece stuff certainly doesn’t seem to work very well at all. It’s very frustrating, like someone is dangling the key to everything I should remember right in front of my face, but only… it’s just out of my reach, and every time I get close to grabbing it, they yank it further away.”
Guile smiled a melancholy smile, and edged over to sit beside his charge. He gently cupped his hand around Slayd’s neck and whispered words of magic, gazing quietly down at him. Slayd shifted a little in awkwardness, but at least the soreness in his neck and shoulder began to melt away. He sighed and closed his eyes, enjoying the relief even though he was still exhausted.
Guile pulled away from him, looking off to the dark horizon. “The Beetle King will be most pleased to see you, Slayd,” he said quietly, and almost sadly. “If anyone can help you regain your memory completely, it is he.”
They rode on the back of the giant worm in silence, watching the valley slip by. Heavy clouds still covered the sky, so there were no stars to shine down upon them. Instead, Slayd noticed fireflies start to come out all around them, flashing their silent signals to each other through the still air. No frogs or crickets could be heard in the dark, and their absence made the light of the fireflies all the more eerie.
Slayd had the feeling that something was watching him, almost breathing down his neck. He turned to look at Guile, but his empty eye sockets were still fixed on the horizon and not on Slayd. He frowned. The feeling wouldn’t go away, and it didn’t seem to be coming from one particular direction. He stared up at the sky, but all he saw were the dark and heavy clouds. He shook his head, wondering why he felt so paranoid.
Instead of focusing on those disturbing feelings, he tried to distract him self with other thoughts. He began to wonder about Guile’s melancholy. It seemed stronger when he had mentioned the Beetle King, and it frustrated Slayd that he could not seem to remember much of anything about him. All he had was a deep nostalgia, but no memories to attach to it. He had the sensation that the nostalgia he was feeling was part of what was causing Guile to be… almost sad, Slayd realized.
Slayd had a faint feeling that he and the Beetle King might have shared in something, something that he and Guile had never had together. And, surprisingly enough, Guile was not jealous. Or at least, he was not showing his usual anger that he normally showed when he was feeling jealous. It confused Slayd, but he didn’t say anything to Guile about it. Besides, his eyes were feeling so heavy and his body was feeling so sluggish, that he felt he really needed to go to… sleep…
Slayd awoke to patters of rain on his face, still on the back of the immense worm with Guile quietly sitting by his side, watching him. Slayd sat up quickly, wondering why he had fallen asleep so fast. He didn’t have to wonder for very long because that feeling of numbness came back full-on, taking over all of his extremities and making him exhausted. He groaned and shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs from his brain. He could feel Guile looking at him curiously, but he waved the look away. “I’m fine, Guile. I just don’t think I should have fallen asleep, is all.”
“I see.” Guile nodded slowly, a raised eyebrow the only sign that he didn’t quite believe Slayd. “In any event, our ride is nearly at an end. Though we are not quite to the Beetle King’s castle, the worm does not venture right up to his doorstep. I am afraid we will have to walk the rest of the way.”
Slayd nodded as he looked to the horizon, following the worm’s great body until the darkness obscured his sight. He could see a row of dim lights barely visible in the distance, like lanterns along a wall.
The valley around them had changed, too. It had widened into nearly flat land, soft and quiet. Instead of dead grass and shale, there was a carpeting of brownish-green moss over much of the soil. Golden-brown weeping willows were scattered in groves across the landscape, marking where creeks and pools of water were. It was raining fitfully now, and the dark cloudy sky showed no signs of allowing the drizzle to clear any time soon.
As they rode upon the great worm’s back, he could see mounds of earth adorned with scattered pale flowers on creeping vines, and vague remnants of what might have been monuments or architecture crumbled at their bases.
“The barrows of the great kings…” Slayd whispered.
Guile looked at him and raised both eyebrows. “Remembering?”
Slayd nodded vaguely, murmuring under his breath. “Those days are long gone, aren’t they…”
Guile shrugged. “Not quite, Slayd. Although I am pleased you remember something about the history of this place.”
Slayd shook his head. “I do not remember much. Just… the familiarity of it all is almost overwhelming…” He rubbed his forehead, trying to shake the clinging sense of claustrophobia and heaviness that still plagued him.
Guile nudged Slayd gently, and gestured to the ground. “Jump down with me, Slayd. I cannot fly us off.” He took Slayd’s hand and they slid off the side of the worm. Guile landed a little roughly because of the condition he was in, but Slayd stumbled hard and landed on his knees. Guile pulled him to his feet, a quizzical look playing over his face. He cocked his head, but Slayd ignored his questioning stare.
“Perhaps you should rest a while longer, Slayd. We are not pressed for time.”
Slayd rubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed wearily before nodding. “I suppose.”
The two of them sought out a willow tree and sat beneath its swaying branches. Slayd leaned back against the rough bark and closed his eyes. They seemed so heavy, as if they had turned into lead. His muddled mind was refusing to clear, and finally Slayd gave in to its persistent demand for sleep and slipped back into unconsciousness.
All the while Guile was studying his charge, his concern growing with every moment. He could understand if Slayd was tired, but his slumber seemed unnatural.
He kept close watch over him as he slept, taking the opportunity to finally heal his own wounds. He was also feeling very stiff and sore, and the feeling did not fade even after the matted stump of his wing was mended. He shook his head and sighed wearily. “I suppose I should not have expected this endeavor to go entirely without incident. I just wish that we had not been forced to encounter one of…”
He paused, flinching and inhaling a slow breath that shook just a little. “…One of the Grigora.”
He let his words trail off in the still air as he watched the fireflies float lazily through the fitful rain. The Beetle Kingdom had a way of making one feel very much alone in a very lonely world.
He let a few hours go by before gently shaking Slayd’s shoulder. “Wake up. We should move on.”
He didn’t move. His soft breathing stayed shallow, and his eyes remained closed. Guile frowned and shook him harder, gripping his shoulder and squeezing. “Slayd.”
Not even a flutter of his eyelids gave Guile any indication that Slayd had heard him. Guile stared down at him, eye sockets wide.
“Do not do this to me now, Slayd. Wake up!” He slapped him across the cheek, but it did no good. Anxious, Guile scooped Slayd up in his arms and carried him away from the willow tree, running across the mossy ground towards the flower-covered barrows. He dropped to his knees when he reached the nearest one and laid his burden among the pale flowers, calling out in his raspy voice.
“Shades! You dwell here still! If the Lich King Moroloth has ever held your allegiance you will hearken and assist me! His heir lies in unnatural slumber and cannot be awoken by the living. Hear me!”
Silence lingered in the still air for several long moments, and Guile was just about to call again when he heard a low hum coming from deep within the mound.
A scraping like the sound of metal over rough ground slipped out of the barrow, and a hazy white vapor oozed from the soil. There were faces in the mist. Their dead eyes rolled to face Guile, and then lingered on the slumbering face of Slayd.
“You have honored the authority of the Lich King for centuries,” Guile said, his voice wavering a little, “and now I ask you as his loyal servant and the guardian of his legacy… save his Heir. He sleeps as one of the dead, and the dead it must be to shake him from his torpor. Awaken him.”
The slack features of the ghostly faces never changed, but slowly the mist slipped over Slayd’s slumbering form. Whispers too quiet to understand emanated from rotten misty mouths, their voices eerily similar to those trapped within the walls of the Spider Queen’s lair. Narrow fingers materialized from the haze and slid inside Slayd’s mouth, a low moan echoing from deep within the earth.
Slayd choked and twisted where he lay, his eyes flying open. The dead faces around him melted back into the thick white mist, leaving him startled and confused on the ground.
Slayd blinked huge eyes. Had he just seen faces floating over him? Had he just emerged from some dream he did not remember? Bewildered, he rubbed at his tired eyes and blearily looked around him.
Guile knelt close beside him, ignoring the mist that still lingered around the foot of the barrow. He slipped a hand behind Slayd’s head and helped him sit up, his concerned gaze raking over him. “Are you all right?”
Slayd nodded drowsily. “I think so. What happened?”
Guile pulled him carefully to his feet. “You wouldn’t wake up. I had to call for aid.”
Slayd looked around them, wondering who on earth he had called upon. He still felt lethargic and his brain was still fuzzy, but he tried to shake it off. He rubbed his cheek and flinched. It stung.
Guile ignored the slightly accusatory look on Slayd’s face and took his hand. “Are you well enough to travel?”
Slayd nodded mutely and rubbed again at his eyes.
They trudged across the valley in the direction of the dim lights, following a path that was slowly turning green with moss. The barrows on either side of them were thick with pale flowers, their heady scent filling the air. It was so quiet even their footfalls against the soft moss sounded muffled. The gentle slope of the ground was always downward, which made for easy travel. Still, Slayd could not shake the feeling of weariness and unease.
As they walked the feeling that he was being watched again crept over Slayd, even stronger than before. He turned quickly to look behind him, but all he saw was the path they had already traveled. Nothing moved except the fitful rain and the fireflies, and there was no wind. A shiver ran down his spine and he glanced quickly at Guile, who was staring at him in intense curiosity.
“…Is anything wrong, Slayd?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Something seems to be troubling you.”
Slayd shook his head, and looked back up at the sky. The feeling was getting stronger and stronger, like whoever was causing it had sidled right up next to him, breathing down his neck and about to wrap heavy clutches around his throat. He unfastened the already-loose tie around his neck and inhaled sharply. “What… is this?”
He shook his head again, trying to remove the suffocating imaginary grip around his throat, but it seemed to constrict him even more. He gasped for air, and collapsed on the ground.
Guile dropped to his knees next to Slayd and rolled him over on his back. “Slayd! Are you all right? What’s wrong? Speak!” He slipped his hands over Slayd’s throat, which he was clutching at frantically as if there was someone trying to squeeze the breath out of him. Guile felt nothing there, and he tried to pull Slayd’s own hands away. Slayd gasped, but could not form words. He shook his head wildly back and forth.
Guile grabbed Slayd’s face and stared at him, baring his teeth. “How did I not realize it earlier? You met Loruma’s gaze, didn’t you? Didn’t you?! Answer me!”
Slayd gasped again, but nothing but a wheeze came out. He did manage to nod, and Guile cursed. “Slayd, I know you are terribly frightened, but you will have to do as you’re told. Do you understand? You must trust me.”
Slayd managed another nod and tried to keep his eyes from losing their focus.
“Lie still, and open your mouth.” Guile straddled Slayd’s waist, pinning him to the ground to keep him from struggling. He curled one hand around Slayd’s constricted throat and placed two fingers of his other hand over Slayd’s eyes. He ignored Slayd’s trembling, squirming form underneath him and whispered his spidery magic words. The runes took their form as Guile breathed them out, and they slipped past Slayd’s open mouth.
A sickly orange miasma oozed out of Slayd’s eyes, and as he gasped for air it seeped out through his mouth as well, pooling around the two of them. Slayd thrashed madly underneath Guile, but he refused to move. He whispered more magic into the air, his faint chants increasing speed as the vapor poured out of Slayd. A foul reek permeated the air and Slayd began to foam at the mouth, his eyes rolling back into his head as his convulsions threw him into unconsciousness.
Then the thick miasma began to take on form. It materialized into a long, heavy stalk, with a misty replica of a pulsing eye wavering at the top. Small nodules of many tiny eyes surrounded it, quivering with what Guile could only interpret as rage. Smokey tentacles unwrapped themselves from the ooze and reached for Guile, but he just lurched backwards and bared his teeth. His whispered words became a low, guttural chant and he pulled his hand away from Slayd’s throat, casting it at the smoky apparition. “You shall not have him, Loruma. He is mine, and I will not give him up so easily.”
His words in between chants were harsh and full of wrath, and the apparition hesitated for a fraction of a second. It snaked its oozing limbs towards Slayd’s limp form, but that hesitation was all Guile needed. A hot blue light shot out from Guile’s outstretched hand, flaring against the smoky apparition, tearing misty tentacles and sweeping the reek away. Some of the orange slime still held on though, clinging tenaciously to the ground and creeping towards Slayd. The amorphous replica of Loruma reared its last tentacles of smoke and lunged for the unconscious boy, but Guile was faster than the apparition. He threw his upper body back and the jaws in his stomach lurched forward, gaping wide, and tore away the fetid tentacles in one enormous bite. His maw swallowed them whole, leaving only fleeting tendrils of slimy orange mist to dissipate on the ground. His second mouth settled back into his stomach with a slick hiss. Guile grinned a little to himself, but the smile vanished quickly. Slayd had stopped breathing, and his face was deathly pale.
Guile cursed under his breath and placed both hands on Slayd’s chest. He gently pumped Slayd’s chest and whispered quick words of magic, forcing the heart beneath his grate to start beating again. He bent low over Slayd’s prone form and ever so gently kissed his breath back into him.
Slayd’s eyes flew open and he gasped for air, shoving Guile away and struggling to get up. “Get off of me!” he wheezed, “I can’t breathe!”
Guile complied and Slayd rolled over onto his knees, coughing up blood and insects. He clutched at his throat, wishing to himself that the burning sensation in his lungs would stop.
Guile knelt next to his charge, but made no move to touch him. “Slayd? Are you all right?”
Slayd nodded sharply, still trying to catch his breath. Guile offered him his hand, but Slayd ignored it. He slowly and laboriously got to his feet on his own, and ran a hand through his ribbon-like hair. “Well…” he whispered hoarsely, his voice cracking a little, “now wasn’t that an adventure I could have done without.” He shook his head and looked around, searching for the mossy path that they had been on.
Guile sighed, but did not say anything. Instead he turned back to the route they had been traveling and led the way on to the Beetle King’s castle.
Neither Guile nor Slayd saw the remnant of Loruma’s apparition seep back out of the ground it had dissolved into. Nor did they see it begin to reform itself and follow them, creeping along silently, its malodorous reek scattered by the rain.