Chapter 32: The Beetle King.

  Slayd and Guile again traveled in silence, each troubled by their own thoughts. Slayd kept his eyes ahead of him, focusing on the dim lights so far off that he could barely see them through the haze of the rain. He was slipping into a sulky mood, and he began to wonder if it was the rain, the waning of adrenaline from their ordeal with Loruma and his apparition, or if it was something else entirely. He frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets as he trudged along beside Guile. Beside him, his guardian flicked his eyeless gaze down at Slayd and held back a sigh.
   They traveled several miles in the quiet rain before the dim lights began to grow any closer. When they finally reached the first of them, Slayd was surprised by the cause of the flickering glow. They were collections of fireflies, drawn en masse to some sort of flowering tree that had once been planted in rows between the barrows and the path they traveled. It had been a long time since the trees had been pruned or maintained, and the small shrines that had once been placed at the bases of their trunks were nothing more than rusted piles of coins and rotting cloth.
   “Where are we, Guile?”
   “Near the Beetle King’s castle. You can see it at the top of the far rise.”
   Indeed, if Slayd craned his neck and stood on his tip-toes he could see the rough outline of tumbled stone and fallen timbers through the haze of the rain. It couldn’t be more than a half-mile away. Slayd smiled to himself, not really knowing why other than that he felt a brief wave of nostalgia wash over him.
   He turned around to see how far they had gone, and he froze.
   “Guile.” He seized his guardian’s arm and pulled him around. “Look.”
   Rapidly slipping down the hill behind them was the amorphous orange shape of Loruma’s apparition, one bulging eye thrust forward, filled with hate and quite murderous intent. It was bearing down on them with a speed that belied its globular shape, shrieking at a tremulous pitch as it came.
   Guile cursed and grabbed Slayd’s wrist. “Run.”
   Slayd did not have to be told twice. The two of them propelled themselves with as much speed as they could muster towards the ruins of the castle at the top of the rise, which suddenly seemed much farther away. Slayd’s lungs were heaving and his heart seemed to want to pound out from behind his grated chest. He could feel the presence of the apparition grow behind him, approaching so close that no longer could the rain hide its stench.
   Guile still held on to Slayd’s wrist as he ran, and dragged him forward when he began to lag. “Run, damn you! Pass beyond the boundary stones!”
   Slayd didn’t know what Guile was referring to until he was practically upon them. He stumbled as he passed the broken monuments, the pulse of their magical gaze disorienting him and tumbling him off of his feet. The many eyes carved into the boundary stones fixed their stony gaze first on Slayd and then on Guile, before directing their stares to the apparition bearing down on them so close Slayd imagined its smoky tentacles were brushing up against his back.
   The apparition slammed into an invisible barrier, writhing and shrieking less than a meter from where Slayd lay. He twisted himself around and backed away, staring wide-eyed up at the thrashing remnant of Loruma. It threw itself repeatedly against the enchantment of the boundary stones, its massive eye oozing blood in its fury.
   Guile pulled Slayd to his feet and backed slowly away from the boundary. “We are upon the steps of the Beetle King’s castle, Slayd. He will not allow harm to come to you. Watch, for his shades come in pursuit.”
   Confused and shaken, Slayd peered beyond the struggling apparition and down the hill they had just climbed in such haste. Slipping along the ground was a misty white haze, and he could swear he saw faces, dead and pale, coiling over the vapor. The sound of metal over stone reached Slayd’s ears as the mist approached, and the apparition turned to confront this new adversary. The dead faces in the haze opened wide their rotting mouths, moaning in voices that sounded like they came from deep within the earth. They tore through the amorphous body of Loruma’s apparition as if it had been nothing but the wind. The shrieks and struggles from the putrid remnant made Slayd cover his ears with his hands and bury his face in Guile’s arm.
   It was brief. In a few moments Slayd heard nothing but silence, and Guile stroked the top of his head. He pulled away suddenly and snuck a peek back at the boundary stones. Nothing remained. He saw no apparition and no dead faces, only the mossy ground and the fitful rain.
   “Where…” Slayd rubbed the back of his head in confusion.
   Guile grunted and gestured uphill. “It matters little, Slayd. The Beetle King is lord of death. The shades of the barrows will do as their master commands them.”
   At mention of the Beetle King, Slayd turned his eyes back to the ruins of the castle just ahead of them. Crumbling stone that had once been part of a colonnade littered the wide, cracked steps that he found himself standing upon. The eroding castle walls lay beyond, silent and grey in the rain. It had been a majestic and imposing structure once. Its ruins still held their imperial sense of grace, refusing to let go of the memory of their grand and ancient past.
   Slayd knew that he had never seen this castle when it was whole, and neither had Guile. In fact, something in the back of Slayd’s memory told him that it had been many long centuries past when this castle had last been intact. Now the grand ruins lay covered in vines and pale blue flowers, the silence broken only by the sound of the raindrops against the stone.
   Slayd moved slowly through the remains of the castle, followed closely by Guile. He stopped before a tall archway of stone, remarkably still intact and covered with vines. The archway had once held great doors, and Slayd recognized it as the entrance to the main courtyard. He threw an indiscernible look back at Guile, and ducked under the vines.
   To Slayd’s eyes, the courtyard was beautiful. It too was in ruins, and the gardens that had been planted here had long since grown wild. The same pale blue flowers were growing here as well, scattered in viney patches anywhere they could gain a foothold among the rest of the wild greenery. On the far end of the courtyard was a matching archway, this one with a rotting wooden door on one side, half off its hinges and adorned with fungi.
   Guile paused in the middle of the courtyard and turned his face skyward. Slayd imagined that if he had eyes, he would have closed them to the rain. He almost looked peaceful, were it not for a tiny flinch of pain. “It is quiet here,” Guile murmured, “a quiet that you do not find in any other place in Dehalen. I had forgotten that…”
   Slayd nodded slowly. “It is almost as if it were extending its own hands to you, in a gesture of peace…” but Slayd shook his head. He had someone he was looking for. Shaking off the feeling, he went through the archway with the half-hinged door, and Guile followed him.
   They were inside the ruined castle now, its dark halls opening up before Slayd in silent greeting. Shafts of dim grey light pierced through the gentle darkness on occasion, letting in the rain and marking where the roof had fallen away high above them.
   As Slayd walked he ran his hand along the cold stone, pointedly ignoring the quiet stares of Guile behind him. He knew something was deeply troubling Guile, but Slayd was still leery of him. There was just… something strange about the way Guile looked at him, as though he both loathed and loved him and couldn’t decide which way he wanted to feel. And that duality of emotion had been growing ever stronger since they had found each other again. It left Slayd feeling very nervous, and a little angry.
   As if in response to his thoughts, Guile growled a little in his throat. “Slayd.”
   Slayd turned at the sound of his name and looked at Guile quizzically.
   “Slayd, we cannot go any further until I have told you what has been eating away at me ever since we left the Locust King.” He paused, and Slayd got the distinct impression that he was staring too harshly at Guile and he didn’t like it. He flicked his gaze away, back down the hall.
   “What is it, Guile? We are very near one of our last goals and I am becoming impatient.”
   Guile nodded and looked almost resigned. “I know, Slayd. I do not wish to detain you, but it must be said. Even though I have said it already - many times - and still you do not hear.”
   Slayd locked eyes with his guardian again. “… What is it, Guile?” he asked quietly.
   Guile sighed (mostly to himself, Slayd imagined), and reached out a hand to touch Slayd’s cheek. “You doubt my loyalty to you, don’t you, Slayd?”
   Slayd shook his head. “That I do not doubt.”
   “And what of my love?”
   Slayd fell silent. He didn’t quite know how to answer. Guile’s hand fell away from Slayd’s face, and he turned to the dark hall with a sigh. “I cannot break through that cage, Slayd, and nothing I could ever do or say will change how much you have hardened your heart to me. Perhaps nothing needs to be said after all.”
   Slayd touched his chest, his hand running over the iron grate that was bolted there underneath his shirt. A small part of him wondered if Guile had been literal. But his guardian didn’t clarify. Instead, he turned quickly to Slayd and grasped him hard by the shoulders, pressing him up against the cold stone wall. Slayd squeaked, and Guile leaned in close next to his ear.
   “Nothing needs to be said,” he whispered, “but this. I will not let you go, I will not relinquish you to any other.” He slid his tongue over Slayd’s jaw and kissed his neck with such terrible gentleness it drew goose bumps all over Slayd’s skin. “You are mine, Slayd, and I am yours. It would do you good to remember that.”
   Slayd shuddered and whispered hoarsely, “Guile, let me go…”
   Guile complied quickly. He jerked away from Slayd as if the boy had suddenly turned into needles and looked away, a fierce fire lit in his empty eye sockets. Slayd slid to the ground, hugging his own shoulders. He felt cold all over, except for a burning heat behind his grated chest that was rapidly spreading to the pit of his stomach.
   “Come Slayd. You said you were growing impatient.” Guile stalked down the hall, and Slayd had to jump up and run to catch up with him.
   The wide hall came to an end in shambles, the crumbling stone leaving a jagged hole in the wall obstructed by rotting beams of wood that had once been rafters.
   Guile crouched low on one of the broken stones, reaching out a hand to brush away a cobweb from the hole. He said nothing, only looked back to stare at Slayd.
   He swallowed hard. Edging up the hole in the wall, he peered inside but could see nothing but darkness and a few shafts of dim light filtering in through the ceiling. “Where…”
   “You wanted to see him, did you not?” Guile’s voice was hoarser than usual.
   Slayd nodded once and clambered over the broken masonry, taking care not to slip on the moss. Guile followed silently behind him.
   Once he was through, Slayd found himself standing in a massive room, flanked by two sweeping stone staircases that led the way to the upper levels of the castle. Shafts of dim grey light filtered down from holes in the vaulted ceiling, illuminating mossy stone and broken shingles that had fallen in from the roof. The flowering vines still crept in through the cracks and crumbles in the wall, diffusing their heady aroma through the air as if it were incense.
   Guile paused beside Slayd and gestured sharply to the far end of the room, where a deep red banner hung thread-bare from the rafters. It backed a tall, narrow throne on a tiered dais, upon which a dark figure sat unmoving, indiscernible in the shadows.
   Slayd looked up at his guardian uncertainly, but Guile only sneered. “There is the Beetle King, Slayd. I am sure you have been eager to see him again, from the way your thoughts have been leaning. Whatever fond nostalgia you have been feeling, be sure to recall now. You seem to believe he can carry you away to your precious idea of ‘happily ever after’.” The acrid bitterness in his words caught Slayd off-guard, but Guile just crossed his arms and stared fixedly at the shadowy figure.
   Slayd swallowed hard and edged his way across the dusty floor, his feet feeling suddenly quite leaden. He approached the throne with his heart jumping in his throat as he climbed the tiers of the dais. He could see now that the throne was made entirely of bones, although he could not tell of what creature or being they might have come from. He shivered.
   “My lord?” He said hesitantly, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the deep shadow around him. “My… lord?”
   Slayd gasped, his eyes wide and suddenly bursting with tears. “Oh gods… Guile!” He stumbled backwards only to bump into his guardian, who grasped his shoulders from behind to steady him. Slayd shook his head violently. “This cannot be! Guile, he’s dead!”
   The Beetle King sat upon his macabre throne, skeletal fingers grasping a scepter in one hand and sunken eyes staring out from a rigid skull. Slayd felt tears spill out of his eyes, and his heart felt like it had been torn right out of its cage and thrown to the floor. He knew this man. He knew every inch of his severe face, every smile, every frown, every meaningful look he ever gave. He knew the quiet baritone of his voice and the soft sound of his breath in the quiet of these ruined halls. He knew him. He remembered him.


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