Chapter 33: They Hold Much of the World.

  Guile watched with a bitter scowl as Slayd knelt beside the throne and ran his fingers delicately over one of the skeletal hands. He kept trying to blink away the tears in his eyes, but they stubbornly persisted in muddying his vision. “Guile… What happened?”
   The scowl deepened. “You remember his name, and the thoughts roiling through your head say that you remember far more than that. And yet you cannot recall his torpor? The Beetle King is not dead, Slayd.”
   Slayd sprang to his feet and whirled around, his fingers curling into tightly clenched fists. “What do you mean, ‘he’s not dead’?! Unlike you, I have eyes, you know. I can certainly see the obvious. Tell me what happened.”
   Guile’s eye sockets narrowed. “Do not test my patience, heir. You do not recall your full authority just yet. What I say is true. He is not dead.”
   “Your guardian does not lie.”
   Both Slayd and Guile turned at the sound of the soft voice. Even though it was very quiet, it echoed in the vastness of the ruined room. The small form of a girl slipped out of the shadows beyond the Beetle King’s macabre throne and bowed slightly, gathering the hem of a long white robe. “I am Lady Bird. We met once, guardian, when I was very small.”
   Guile inclined his head towards the girl, argument with Slayd put aside for the meantime. “I remember you. You are the Beetle King’s niece, if I recall. Time has slipped by faster for me, because of the time I spent beyond the Veil. It seems as though I was here but a year or two ago.”
   Lady Bird shook her head, a tiny smile appearing that made her look even younger. “It has been more than a decade since then. But even here time moves differently. The realm of the dead has little use for such perceptions.”
   Slayd cleared his throat. “I hate to interrupt,” he said, fidgeting with one of the buttons on his shirt, “But you said that Guile speaks the truth. Is Sirrhas – I mean, is the Beetle King alive?”
   Lady Bird’s smile grew a little more, and she nodded. “He is indeed. He rarely awakens from his trance, although your presence I am sure will soon bring him back into his body. He has long awaited your return.”
   Slayd felt his face warm at her words. “How long until he will… um, come back?”
   She shook her head. “It is not my place to say. Everything will happen in its own time. You may be waiting for a long while. May I show you to the dining hall in the meantime? I have reason to believe you are in need of nourishment.”
   Slayd nodded his consent, and the girl led them back through the ruined halls of the castle. She took them by rooms that Slayd was sure he recognized, and past fallen pillars and crumbling stone he swore he remembered. As they walked he ran a hand along the wall, fingering the crevices and dried up vines.
   Guile lagged behind, the scowl slowly fading from his face. It was replaced by a troubled expression that would have given Slayd pause had he seen it, but he was trying very hard to ignore his guardian already.
   Guile flinched and ran a hand over his chest. This place brought so many memories vividly back to him, and he wished in vain that he was anywhere but here. It was difficult to breathe in these halls…
   Lady Bird brought them into the remains of the Beetle King’s dining hall and pulled up chairs to a lengthy table. “Please take whatever you desire. I have a few brief duties that I must attend to, to assure that your stay here will be comfortable. Please excuse me.” She bowed slightly to both of them and left quietly.
   Slayd’s eyes had grown wide when they had entered the hall, and now he turned to Guile, a hand covering his mouth. “How… How does she expect us to eat here?”
   The table before them was set with a banquet fit for an entire kingly court. There was a massive roast set all around with fruits and vegetables, bowls full of puddings and dumplings, and baskets piled high with breads and rolls. It would have been delicious, but every last bit of it was blackened and rotting.
   Guile raised an eyebrow at Slayd’s response and sat himself down at the table, fingers running over the decaying table cloth until he found a tarnished fork. “And here I thought you remembered the Beetle King. Do you not recall his hospitality?”
   Guile began serving himself from the dishes set out on the table, ignoring Slayd’s gaping, nauseous stare. “But… Guile, this has all gone bad. Maybe years ago. How can you even think about eating it? You will get sick…”
   His guardian grunted around a mouthful of rotten meat. “I am already feeling ill, Slayd. This place brings back memories to more than just you.”
   Slayd continued to stare at him in disgusted fascination. “But - ”
   “Do you wish to offend the Beetle King by refusing his hospitality?”
   Slayd blinked. “But Guile - ”
   “Do you?”
   He kicked at a loose pebble on the floor. “No.”
   “Then sit down and eat.”
   Slayd shuffled a moment longer, trying to build up the gall to do so. He sighed and slipped himself gingerly into the chair that Lady Bird had pulled up for him, wondering just how badly he and his stomach were going to regret this. He grabbed a fork and stabbed at the nearest piece of fruit, swallowing it whole.
   It was… sweet.
   Very sweet. It tasted better than the best slice of honeydew he had ever remembered eating.
   Guile smirked a little to himself as Slayd began piling food onto his plate. He couldn’t say that he was enjoying himself, but at least his charge was. He just wished that he could get the heaviness on his chest to go away.
   They ate in silence until Slayd was full nearly to the point of bursting. Lady Bird had come in once early on in their meal to ensure that they had everything they wanted, but once they were finished Slayd realized that he hadn’t seen her for a long time. He shrugged to himself and stretched, only half attempting to stifle a yawn. He was beginning to feel much better about the Beetle King, even if he was still catatonic. “Do you suppose Sirrhas will wake up soon, Guile?”
   “…Guile?” He had to tap his guardian’s arm with a finger before he responded.
   “What, Slayd?”
   “…Are you all right?” Even for Guile, he looked terrible.
   “I’m fine, Slayd. This place has never sat well with me.”
   Slayd frowned and shook his head. “I think there was a time that you truly did like it here, you know.”
   “Then perhaps it is the journey,” he snapped. “You’ve caused me quite a bit of worry recently. Forgive me if I’m tired.”
   “I don’t think - ”
   “Leave it alone, Slayd.” And with that, Guile pushed his chair away from the table and got up. He rubbed the back of his neck and stretched, flinching a little when his fingers brushed against the remnants of his left wing. Before Slayd could ask him if it still hurt, he had turned and wandered out of the dining hall. Slayd hurried after him, wondering where he was going and if it was rude to leave without first telling Lady Bird.
   Guile’s steps led him to vast rooms that once had high vaulted ceilings and alcoves adorned with wooden idols to the ancient gods. The ceilings had collapsed in most places, and the idols were decayed beyond any sort of recognition. Beside their scattered timbered corpses ran wide, shallow pools of water, and it was here that he stopped to gaze quietly at its surface. He rubbed his chest absently, heaving a silent sigh.
   Slayd came up beside him, his pace slowed when he entered the immense ruined hall. “The reflecting pools of Ydeinu,” he whispered. He knew not what spirits might linger here, but he knew (or remembered) that they were great once, and at least deserved the respect of hushed voices.
   Guile nodded. “You are remembering much, little one.” He knelt beside the pool and trailed a claw through the water. It seemed to reflect an opalescent light, the colors changing as the ripples moved across its surface. Slayd crouched next to his guardian, wondering why Guile was in such a pensive mood.
   A feather-light touch on his shoulder drew his attention, and Lady Bird smiled softly down at him. “The Beetle King tends these reflecting pools much as the Priest Incavius does his own on the shores of the dark lake Khorakh. But I feel as though you remember this already.”
   Slayd nodded. It certainly sounded familiar. “I think I do. Things seem to be slowly coming back to me - in bits and pieces, anyway.”
   She nodded. “I know you are eager for your memories, Lord Slayd. Perhaps you can rekindle some of them again by lingering among the reflecting pools. You did so love to accompany the Beetle King when he was attending to them.”
   Slayd turned a shade of pink and nodded, keeping his eyes on the flickering light in the water. Lady Bird offered him a hand and he took it, and she drew him along the lapping edges of the network of pools. Some seemed to practically glow of their own accord, and some were darker than the deepest starless sky. Some glistened with ripples at the slightest disturbance, and others remained smooth as glass.
   “I am sure you are beginning to remember how the Beetle King tends these pools in the same manner as a garden. They are precious to not only the Beetle Kingdom, but all of Dehalen.” Her smile grew as they walked. “We were blessed by the presence of our Lord Savior Moroloth on many occasions, as he would come here to commune with the reflecting pools. They hold much of the world.”
   Slayd nodded at her words, a little smile of his own growing. He remembered coming here with his master for several such occasions, although he couldn’t quite place any of the details. It all seemed so distant and long ago…
   A half-strangled gasp from behind them made both Slayd and Lady Bird turn around, and Slayd’s eyes grew wide.
   Guile had suddenly crumpled to the ground, his second mouth drawn so wide it looked as though it were about to split him apart. Shreds of orange miasma were writhing past his double tongues, twisting in the air until they met Guile’s skin. He writhed at their touch, a wordless scream contorting his face.
   “Guile!” Slayd tried to rush to his side, but Lady Bird grasped his wrist and backed away.
   “No, Lord Slayd! This is demons’ work! There is nothing you can do.”
   The orange mist creeping up Guile’s skin oozed a familiar, sickening smell. It grazed his throat and tightened its snakelike grip around Guile’s neck, strangling him. Guile thrashed under its hold, and Slayd could see blood and foam trickling out of the corner of his mouth. He yanked his wrist free of Lady Bird, but she only grabbed him again. “No! There are others who will come.”
   Before Slayd could figure out if that was a good thing or a bad thing, the grating sound of metal over stone reached his ears. A low hum reverberated throughout the hall, and yet it seemed to come from far, far below them.
   The amorphous remnant of Loruma hesitated but for a moment when it heard that sound, but lunged for Guile again in less than a heartbeat. It twisted itself so tightly around Guile’s throat, Slayd was certain that it was going to behead him.
   But the others had come. A hazy white vapor crept out from between the cracks in the stonework of the walls and the floor, and an unearthly moaning echoed in with it. Ghostly faces with dead eyes rolled to fix on Loruma and Guile, and Slayd suddenly turned his face away, gripping Lady Bird’s arm tightly. He had seen this once before, and he did not need to see it again. The girl stroked his head as he hid it in her shoulder, her own eyes riveted on the vapor of rotting mouths and whispering, moaning voices.
   Slayd could hear Guile thrashing about on the ground, and the contorted shriek of Loruma’s apparition as the shades tore him apart. He only opened his eyes when Lady Bird drew his chin up and smiled at him. “It is done, Lord Slayd. Your guardian remains.”
   Slayd turned around and gasped, hands drawing up to cover his mouth.
   Guile lay shuddering on the ground, half-conscious. His body was a bloody mess, and his breathing was ragged. Slayd dropped to his knees beside him, grasping one of his bony hands. “Oh dear,” he murmured, “What will we do now? Lady Bird, is there a healer anywhere nearby?”
   She shook her hooded head. “There is no one in the Beetle Kingdom with the power to heal. Life-giving magic has no place among the people of the dead. Yet the Beetle King knows a way, through the power of the reflecting pools.”
   Slayd shook his head. “But he has long been asleep.”
   “Not asleep, Lord Slayd. In torpor.” She smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “Do not allow worry to cloud your heart, young master. I will go and perform oblations, and the Beetle King may awaken at my plea. Stay here with your guardian.”
   Slayd nodded mutely, watching her leave the massive hall. He ran his fingers over Guile’s palm, hoping that she would be successful, and that it wouldn’t take very long.
   Guile’s shuddering had grown less erratic, but his breathing was still harsh and shallow. He cast his head about, and only stilled when his eyeless gaze fell on Slayd. His charge pulled the mantle from around his shoulders and tucked it under Guile’s head, trying to make him a little bit less uncomfortable on the cold stone floor. He earned a weak smirk from his guardian. “I was - ” a wet cough interrupted Guile’s words, “I was under the impression you were still angry, Slayd.”
   “Well…” He fidgeted. “I am. And… I’m not. To be honest, you make me angry so often it is difficult to remember what exactly I am upset with you for, sometimes.”
   Guile grunted. “I could… say the same for you.” He turned his eyeless face up to the half-collapsed ceiling, grateful for once that it was intact above him. The rain was still fitfully falling through the scattered holes in the roof, creating hazy grey patches of mist where it fell through to some of the reflecting pools.
   Slayd drew his knees up to his chest, picking at bits of pebbles on the floor. “You have been… acting strange, Guile. I was wondering why.”
   “Well now you know.” He cast a hand over his eye sockets, wincing as the effort tugged at torn muscle.
   “That’s not what I meant.”
   Slayd frowned down at his guardian, wishing he would cooperate and just tell him what had been bothering him.
   Guile sighed. “I have already told you. And you do not hear. Leave it alone, Slayd.”
   “…Oh.” He rested his chin on his knees, an involuntary shiver running up his back. Guile had kissed him then, he remembered, but it hadn’t felt very romantic. Or safe. Everything about Guile made his skin crawl, even if he had pledged loyalty to him and their master.
   He’s dangerous, Slayd mused to himself. He’s dangerous and uncontrollable. Even if he has moments of kindness, they are only punctuated with violence.
   He watched the still water of the reflecting pool, hoping that Lady Bird would not long be away.
   Three hours passed while Slayd sat beside his injured guardian, waiting for the girl to return. Guile had slipped into unconsciousness at some point (whether he had passed out or fallen asleep, Slayd couldn’t tell).
   The quiet shuffle of feet on pebbled stone drew Slayd’s attention, and he glanced behind him to the entrance of the reflecting pools’ hall. Lady Bird was hastening to his side, followed quickly by a tall, skeletal man whose piercing, sunken eyes seemed to bore straight through Slayd. The Beetle King slipped right past him with only a single nod and knelt beside Guile, placing a bony hand on his forehead. “He is still infected with the curse of the Grigora,” he said quietly, and Slayd’s heart lurched behind his grated chest when he heard his voice.
   Slayd inched up behind him, peering over his shoulder to watch in concern as he inspected Guile. “Can – can you heal him?”
   Sirrhas shook his head. “I have no power to heal, young master. My strength lies only with death and decay. Yet the reflecting pools within this hall have the ability.”
   He carefully slipped his arms around Guile’s unconscious form, and carried him through the hall, stopping at one of the pools with water so blue and still, Slayd thought that it must have been made of sapphire. The Beetle King slowly lowered Guile into the water, careful not to jostle his broken wing or bump any of his injuries. He stroked the gashes on the top of his head, and spoke to Lady Bird. “Thank you, child. You have done right to rouse me from my torpor. Go and rest now, regain your strength. I will attend to our guests.”
   She smiled and bowed to the Beetle King, then turned and did the same for Slayd before retreating back down the hall.
   Sirrhas turned and rose from the edge of the pool, his piercing gaze finally resting on Slayd. “What strong wind of fate has brought you here?” he said quietly, “and upon what dark wings you fly, for there is an ominous aura that saturates your arrival.”
   Slayd knew it wasn’t entirely appropriate, but he couldn’t help himself. He threw himself in Sirrhas’ arms, burying his face in his chest. “I – I don’t really know anything about that, but… I remember you. I know you. I know your voice and your eyes and your touch…”
   A thin smile spread over the Beetle King’s face, and he rested a skeletal hand on Slayd’s head. “Much has happened since I last looked on the rest of the world. I had received word that you had cast aside your birthright and were lost beyond the veil. You are changed, Slayd. Strange that you have grown younger.”
   Slayd mumbled a half-hearted reply. “I do not really know how that happened. I don’t remember very much.”
   “So I have been told.”
   “Can – can you help me regain what I lost, Sirrhas?”
   The Beetle King shook his head. “My power lies with forgetfulness, sleep, and death, young master. While I may be able to help you in small ways, only your lord has the power to restore your memory to you fully. You must wait a little while longer.” He took Slayd’s hands and gently detached him from clinging to his robes. “Come. I have attendants that will care for your guardian.”
   Slayd nodded and followed Sirrhas down the hall and back into the darkness of the castle.


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