Chapter 37: The Lich King.
The night was a restless one. Slayd found himself tossing and turning, plagued with nightmares filled with twisted faces and screaming spirits falling from the sky. They had stopped for a short time, allowing him a brief moment of much-needed sleep, but they began again just before dawn.
Slayd had realized he was dreaming again the moment his eyes had opened. The landscape all around him was hazy and moving, all but a single stretch of bare ground, cracked and parched for lack of water. Ahead of him was the vague shadow of a tower, its height obscured by shredded clouds, whipped into a frenzy by the blasting wind. A little beyond him stood a tall man with his back to Slayd, wrapped in robes embroidered with runes, his hair flying free in the wind and reminding Slayd very much of a writhing sea beast. Slayd approached him slowly, recognition dawning in his sluggish, sleeping brain. My master.
But as he approached, another figure emerged from the hazy shadows. He was young and slender, and walked with an arrogance all too uncomfortably familiar to Slayd’s eyes. He carried a sword nearly as long as he was tall, a sword with a name that Slayd could not quite remember. It was the same one he had seen pressed to Moroloth’s body in his tomb.
In the dream, his master turned to Slayd’s dream-self and spoke, but no words came out – the fever of the nightmare rendered the entire world mute, save for the crying of the wind. Moroloth was giving him instruction, but on what Slayd didn’t know. He watched as his dream-self took in whatever he was being told, his grip on the sword strengthening as his eyes grew wide. Moroloth pressed one hand against the dream-Slayd’s wrist, gripping tightly and staring down into his eyes with an intensity that made the rest of the unreal world slip away. Do you understand?
Slayd had tried to say no, he didn’t understand, but his dream-self only nodded. The sword trembled in his dream-self’s hands, and Slayd swore he could have seen the blade smile, in only the way a dream could present such a thing.
And then Slayd’s dream-self paused. Though his back was to Slayd, he seemed to be staring at the ground, and he did not move for a long moment. The world around them began to dim, fading into a frenzied darkness that seemed to be brought by the howling wind. The cracked ground and the tower beyond disappeared, and Lord Moroloth vanished. Slayd’s dream-self still stood, but just as his form began to fade from view, he turned.
Dark eyes locked with Slayd’s. I see you.
He awoke with a start to the haze of early morning, a dark feeling of foreboding creeping so close that it seemed like it had etched itself into his skin. He shuddered all over and reached for Guile, realizing belatedly that he had never been there at all. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting off a headache. Those dreams…
Slayd wrapped a blanket tightly around his shoulders and shivered as he slipped into his shoes. He padded out of his room and peeked around the corner, wondering where his guardian had spent the night.
But he didn’t have to look at all for Guile. He was asleep on the floor, curled up and leaning against the wall opposite the door, with his one good wing wrapped around him.
Slayd knelt beside his guardian, wondering what on earth had prompted him to sleep in the hall. Guile stirred and stretched his wing. He looked at Slayd and muttered, “Whatever my reasons may have been, they were nothing new.”
Slayd blinked. He hated it when he seemed to read his mind like that. He eyed Guile curiously. “But it’s cold out here.”
Guile only grunted and waved a hand. “Never mind, Slayd. Are you ready to revive our master?”
“Are you ready, Slayd?” Guile’s hiss wasn’t angry, as far as Slayd could tell. Just impatient. Slayd took a deep breath, slowly letting it out and trying to calm the beating of his suddenly nervous heart.
“… I am.”
Soft footsteps in the shadows of the ruined hall drew their attention. “If that is true, Lord Slayd, let us return to your master.” Sirrhas approached them and laid his hand on Slayd’s head before offering it to Guile. “Shall we go?”
The three of them walked, hands clasped and in silence, through the broken and ruined halls of the castle, heading to the center gardens. They passed under a dim shaft of light, and rain filtered down into the hall through a hole in the vaulted ceiling. Here Slayd paused for a moment, tugging on Guile’s hand to get him to stop.
“What is it, Slayd?”
He squinted up at the rain, blinking the drops away from his eyes. “I cannot help but feel as if I am forgetting something. Something very important…”
Guile was about to retort, but a sharp hum from above drew the attention of all three. A large winged insect spiraled down through the gap in the ceiling and landed heavily at Guile’s feet. “It seems I have a message.” He knelt beside the weary dragonfly, and turned it over. It held a thin roll of paper clasped between its legs. Guile took it, and read.
I am really very sorry about not waiting for you to send a message, but something has happened, and I thought it wise to tell you as soon as I could. Jyrr has escaped. He killed two of my guards and fled my kingdom. I am not sure where he is headed, but my best guess is back to the Maggot Kingdom. If not there, then he will probably be headed straight to you, to find Slayd. I’m terribly sorry to send you such news, but such things can’t be helped.
P.S. Lord Flea has been spotted. He is on the move, and I know not to where. Keep on your guard, old friend.
Guile frowned, lighting the slip of paper with a whisper of blue flame. He crumpled its ashes between his fingers and shook his head.
Sirrhas raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”
“Well… yes, and no. Do you remember Jyrr, by any chance?”
A dark look passed over the Beetle King’s face. “I do. He is a difficult child to forget.”
“I had him imprisoned with the Locust King, but he has escaped.”
Sirrhas scowled. “I know him well. He will come for Slayd.”
“Not directly. He is out of his element here, if he is alone. No, he has already returned to the Maggot Kingdom and gathered his allies. I believe his intention is for a raid upon your realm, and then he will turn his eyes towards his own. He has waited too long to get what he wants, and I am afraid his limited patience is beginning to run out.”
Sirrhas barked short laughter. “You speak of patience as if you know it, Guile.”
“Only by observation. That is your forte, not mine. And something tells me it may be useful, and soon.” A twisted grin spread across Guile’s face. “He knows nothing of how close we are to returning our master to life. He will be met with a fitting reception when he arrives.”
Slayd stood beside them, squirming at their words. He couldn’t say that he felt sympathy for Jyrr anymore, but there was something about the way Guile spoke that made warning flags fly madly in his head. And there was something else about the words Guile had used… “Wait, how could Jyrr have already returned to the Maggot Kingdom if he just escaped? It took us so long to get from there to the Locust Kingdom. How could he have gotten there in such a short time?”
Guile shrugged. “You do not remember the nature of this realm?”
A frown creased Slayd’s forehead. “Not… really.”
“Time is strange here. We are at the far eastern border of our world, Slayd. The Veil lies beyond these rolling hills and barrows, and its proximity makes time a tenuous thing indeed. Mere days have passed within these halls, but weeks and perhaps months have passed beyond the Beetle Kingdom’s borders.”
Slayd’s eyes widened, another memory slipping into place. “And that explains why it seemed as though you were gone for years, when you left Priest Incavius’ temple.”
He received a terse nod in return, and Slayd flinched. They resumed their walk, and Slayd tried very hard to focus on the task at hand and put everything else out of his mind.
The three of them returned to the center gardens, ignoring the rain that still persisted on falling. Before they approached the tomb, Sirrhas grasped Slayd’s wrist and pulled him to a stop. “I must ask, as it is my duty. Are you sure about this, Slayd? There is still time enough if you desire to delay a little longer. This is not something you should do with doubt in your heart. One should not resurrect our savior without a clear mind. It would be folly to do so.”
Slayd shook his head. “I’m sure.”
“Do you know what to do?”
He nodded slowly, and stared at the glass coffin. “Of all the magical rites that Moroloth taught me, it is the only one I seem to have remembered. I know what to do.”
The Beetle King nodded once, and released Slayd’s hand. With a hard swallow Slayd turned and approached the glass tomb, his heartbeat quick and fitful behind the grated cage. He knelt at the head of the coffin and stared down at the corpse of his master. He could almost imagine Lord Moroloth’s voice.
I am not sure what feels so wrong, He thought to himself, But there is something that is definitely not right. But I cannot stop now. Not while I’m this close to getting my memories back… and my master…
He reached out a hand and touched Moroloth’s shriveled face. Should both of these feelings really belong inside me at the same time? This affection and anger? Why am I feeling this way?
Slayd shook his head and stood up, his grip white-knuckled on the rim of the coffin. …It doesn’t matter.
In a moment of sudden clarity, he snatched the pendant from around his neck and pressed it to the corpse’s throat. His fingers trembled as he pulled the sword from the crossed wrists of his master and held it up, studying the strange script that was carved into the blade. “Greyog…” He whispered, and held the sword aloft. Uttering strange magic words that he himself didn’t recall the meaning of, Slayd chanted in a low hum, his heartbeat slowing to match the rhythmic pounding of his voice. The rain responded, coming down in sheets so thick Slayd imagined the clouds had been split open to pour their lifeblood out upon the land of the dead. Thunder rolled from somewhere above him, but Slayd could hardly hear it for the sound of the rain.
Slayd drew the sword back towards himself and took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter,” he repeated, and viciously cut a deep gash into his outstretched arm.
He hit a main artery and the blood pulsed out of the wound, falling onto the corpse. Slayd gritted his teeth against the pain and lowered his hand, guiding the flow of blood into the corpse’s open mouth. Again he chanted words he didn’t understand, and a low moaning rose up from all around, drowning out the storm and the chanting of Slayd’s voice.
The pendant at the corpse’s throat started to glow and currents of magic flowed out from it, twisting and contorting the rain in the air. The currents enveloped the corpse and Slayd, and he could feel an icy chill pierce his body. His chant never faltered, and with his words the spell took on a new form, thick and writhing and almost tangible. It plunged into Moroloth’s open mouth, and moments later beetles came pouring out by the thousands, swarming over the sides of the coffin. The corpse’s body lurched, and a low moan rose from the ground.
Slayd gasped and fell to his knees. He could taste the magic inside of him. He could feel it breathe and flutter to life. He could sense the magic begin again to course through his veins, and he almost laughed out loud for the feeling. He was losing too much blood, but he didn’t notice.
Guile jumped up from his place by the Beetle King’s side and ran to Slayd, steadying his trembling shoulders with clawed hands. Slayd ignored his presence, his eyes fixated on the corpse of his master, hand still stretched out over his master’s body.
The moaning all around them grew louder, but even that sound was drowned out by the buzz of insect wings and the scratch of beetle feet, as the scarabs swarmed the garden. And then amidst the riotous roar of sound, Slayd heard a heartbeat not his own. His eyes grew wide and his grip on the sword in his other hand grew tighter.
The corpse convulsed within the coffin, and the pendant pressed to its throat sunk into the flesh. The eyes embedded in its surface tore themselves away from their metal clasps by thin spidery legs, and they crept across the corpse’s face, each settling into an eye socket. Eyelids squeezed shut, and the moaning stopped. The swarm of thousands of beetles flew away in an instant, and suddenly all was still and quiet. The rain had dissolved away, leaving nothing but the faint sound of falling mist in its wake.
Slayd wondered dizzily if the ecstasy of the moment would last, but as soon as the thought came into his head the feeling of magic in his veins flowed out from him, running down his hand and away into his master’s gaping mouth. He sagged against the rim of the coffin, eyes swimming. Something was different… Something was wrong…
And then he gasped down at the corpse, dropping the sword.
The Lich King’s chest rose and fell with an aching slowness. He did not look nearly so shriveled and dead, and the color was returning to his skin. His eyes squinted open, and he reached up a hand to block the misty rain. He studied his fingers, flexed them, and purred deep in his throat.
Slayd felt himself dragged from the rim of the coffin, and he struggled in Guile’s arms. Guile quieted him with a hand on his head, and eased him to the ground. “Hush Slayd,” he whispered, his empty eye sockets huge with awe and riveted on their master.
The Lich King arose from his tomb, and his gaze fell first on the sword lying on the ground. He drew it into his hand with a whisper of magic and turned it over, running a finger through the blood on the blade. “Soon you shall bathe in demons’ blood again, Greyog, and taste flesh upon your steel tongue, for your master has returned from the halls of Satarin, and his mind has not been idle.”
The sword seemed to tremble in his hands, and he set foot upon the ground. The air all around was deadly quiet, with only the faint patter of the fitful rain to break the silence. Lord Moroloth sheathed his sword, and as it clicked into place a distant rumble of thunder rolled across the sky. Slayd shuddered.
Moroloth turned and his gaze finally fell upon Slayd, with Guile crouched by his side. Blood still poured from Slayd’s arm, and he stared dazedly up at his master, speechless and trembling.
A grim smile stretched across The Lich King’s face as he approached his protégé. Slayd had the vague notion that he looked very much like a skeleton when he smiled that way, even more so than the Beetle King.
Moroloth reached out a hand and placed it on Guile’s head, sending a small shiver down his spine. He turned his attention back to Slayd and knelt down in front of him, tilting the boy’s chin up to lock gazes with him.
“You have done well, my child. You have lived up to the promise you had shown in your youth, and my heart swells with pride.” He stood and offered Slayd his hands. “Yet I sense apprehension in you. You have lost the power and the knowledge of who you once were. A strange turn from the Slayd that I remember, and your appearance echoes your unease. Do you desire to flee your master’s presence?”
Slayd shook his head, his mind sluggish and foggy. “My place is by your side,” he whispered, hoarsely and hesitantly. “Whether I will it or no.” He shoved Guile away and struggled haltingly to his feet, reaching trembling fingers for Moroloth’s hands.
Guile fell backwards and scrambled to his feet, unsteady with the force of his masters’ presence. Slayd seemed to echo the Lich King’s power, as if he were feeding off of his magic and spinning it into his own. He couldn’t keep from staring at them.
The Lich King pulled Slayd into an embrace and ran his fingers through his hair. “Then you wish your memories returned to you?”
Slayd’s eyes widened, and he nodded.
Moroloth smiled his skeletal smile, and whispered in Slayd’s ear. “Then receive your memories of all you were.”
He gripped the back of Slayd’s head hard enough to draw blood, pulling back until Slayd’s face was turned up to the fitful rain. He slipped a finger inside his mouth, forcing it open. Slayd’s eyes grew even wider, and his breath hitched when Moroloth leaned close over him. Thin whispers in the language of magic slid from the Lich King’s lips, and all other sound seemed to fall away.
Guile tensed where he stood, his eyeless sockets fixed on the two in front of him. Both the presence of his master and that of Slayd weighed heavily upon him, and the closer they were to each other the more difficult it became to breathe. He felt his body begin to waver and crumple, but a bony hand clutched his shoulder and drew him upright again. Sirrhas had come to stand beside him, holding him steady. But the Beetle King’s attention was not on Guile, but on Moroloth.
A thick, liquid mist oozed from the Lich King’s mouth, and it smelled of magic and embalming fluid. It dripped slowly into Slayd’s open mouth, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He began to convulse, choking on the liquid as he tried to swallow it. But Moroloth held him fast, and his vision went blindingly white.
Slayd felt a peculiar sensation as if he was floating, and he could feel the magic of Moroloth’s spell work itself into his body, flowing through him like electrical currents. His heart was pounding loud behind its cage, and Slayd imagined it might try to break free any moment. But then the currents of magic reached his brain, and brilliant flashes of color and motion tore across Slayd’s vision.
And he remembered.