Chapter 41: Mixed Messages.

  The road was a long one, keeping relatively straight through the low rolling hills that made up most of the Beetle Kingdom’s landscape. Though one could hardly call it a proper road, for it had long been left unmaintained and now was overgrown with grass and weeds. The only thing that distinguished it from the surrounding countryside was the distinct lack of pale flowers scattered over its path.
   It was a silent road as well – Guile had not heard the thrum of wings or the call of wild things for the past two days he had been traveling. The only sound he heard was the soft fall of gentle rain and the rustling of the grass beneath his feet. That suited him just fine. After he had overheard Slayd’s conversation with Lady Bird, the quiet of the open hills helped to silence his own mind.
   A few hours earlier he had sent a dragonfly carrying a short note to Slayd, informing him that he was going to assist the Beetle King’s son in dealing with the intruders. He knew Slayd would probably be annoyed that he refused to just tell him himself, but Guile didn’t really have the patience or the fortitude to deal with his charge right now as it was. He would rather focus on something much simpler and more straightforward, and helping Aesalus decimate a band of Jyrr’s allies sounded properly distracting. And speaking of the Beetle King’s son…
   Guile crested a low hill marked with a single dead tree, and peered down into the shallow valley below him. The mist was thick here, and laced with powerful magic that obscured even his depth of vision. But he didn’t need to see to sense the murky death lurking amidst the fog.
   Guile stretched his remaining whole wing and loped down the hill, reveling in the feeling of panic that washed over him like ocean waves. Jyrr’s allies certainly had tried valiantly to force their way into the Beetle Kingdom – but there was no way out for uninvited visitors here. At least, no way that didn’t have your spirit riding the wings of shades.
   His silent footfalls did not go unnoticed, however. As Guile ventured further into the murky haze, he could hear the echo of quiet steps not his own, creeping up behind him. He paused, and the steps paused as well. The air behind him seemed to shiver with a sudden chill, and Guile resumed walking, only to pause again when the footfalls followed. He grinned to himself. “It has been a while, Aesalus.”
   The echo ceased. “Indeed, guardian.”
   Guile inclined his head, but didn’t bother turning around. “Still don’t quite trust me, I see.”
   The soft-spoken voice behind him murmured an affirmative. “Trust is something that will never happen between us. What brings you out this far, away from your charge?”
   Guile’s grin widened. “You already know that I have taken it upon myself to assist you in quelling Jyrr’s allies. They numbered in the hundreds when they arrived at the boundary stones, but the smell of death in the rain tells me this is no longer the case.”
   A snort close to his shoulder. The shifting of the air seemed to drop the temperature around Guile by several degrees. “There are less than forty remaining. Your ‘assistance’ is not needed.”
   Guile crossed his arms and narrowed his dark eyes at nothing. “I will have Jyrr’s life, not you, Aesalus. But before that I will bring him before your father and the Lich King. Jyrr’s fixation on Slayd must be dealt with, and in finality.” A voice in the back of Guile’s head asked ‘and what of your own fixation?’, but he shook it away. “It cannot be tolerated now that our master has returned. Slayd already has far too many distractions.”
   “Yes, he must be led to the ruins. Considering he is the son of the Maggot King, it may prove disastrous if someone like you were to be his executioner without approval from our Overlord.”
   Guile raised an eyebrow. “‘Someone like me’?”
   The chill in the air seemed to deepen. “I will leave Jyrr and his ever-present shadow to you, guardian. Drive them to the gates of my father’s castle however you will.”
   “I’ll do that.” Guile turned then, not at all surprised to find no one standing behind him. The icy feeling had vanished, and Guile smiled to himself before he returned to walking the abandoned road.
   It didn’t take Guile long to find his mark. Most of the Maggot Kingdom’s elite forces had been driven off in another direction by Aesalus, leaving a mere handful to accompany their prince. All Guile had to do was follow the smell of fear that lingered in the air, and it led him right to Jyrr. Focusing all his attentions to peer through the mist with his sharp new eyes, he spotted the man with two others, crouched low beside one of the many obelisks that dotted the valley. He recognized the younger of Jyrr’s two companions as Drael, Jyrr’s childhood friend. The other was unknown to him, but it didn’t really matter to Guile anyway. None of the trio had spotted Guile through the thickness of the fog, and his steps were silent as he approached them.
   “ – Nothing we can do about them,” the one Guile didn’t recognize was whispering, his hand tightly clutching Jyrr’s. “We should go back the way we came. Let’s go home, Jyrr.”
   Jyrr just shook his head, his huge eyes so wide they looked as though they would fall out of his skull. “No, there is no escaping this now, and even if we could, whatever is brewing in my father’s palace will overtake us.”
   His companion started to speak again, but Jyrr’s fierce whisper cut him off. “Silvius, you saw them,” he murmured hoarsely. “You saw the gathering of the Circle. I thought that taking our elite forces away from my father would aid me in a coup, but something else is going on. Something very big, and quite beyond our scope. And if we return without the elite, we will be marked traitors. They’re all dead now. Dead or wishing they were.”
   “But if we just – if we just follow the road back, we can get out of here.”
   Guile’s toothy grin stretched across his whole face at that, and he couldn’t help himself. He slipped out from behind where the trio hid and loomed over them, chuckling low. “You should very well know there is no going back.”
   His response was delightful. Jyrr shrieked and broke his grip on Silvius’ hand, bolting at the sound of Guile’s rasping voice. The other two men blindly fled into the haze in opposite directions, panic driving their flight. Guile snickered again and sauntered after them, unhurried.
   He came upon the unknown man from behind, separated from his comrades in their flight and quailing in fear. Guile tapped him once on the shoulder, causing him to spin around and lose his footing. He fell back to the ground and opened his mouth to scream, but Guile cut him off with a swift hand to the throat. “Silvius, is it? Aren’t you a pretty little thing.”
   He struggled against Guile’s hold around his neck, his eyes riveted on Guile’s with such profound horror it almost made Guile flinch. He choked and wheezed, but managed to speak. “You – you’re Guile! And your eyes – my gods, what are you?”
   Guile snorted and squeezed, cutting off what limited air Silvius had access to. “Never mind that, little one. I heard talk of Asman Lar. What of this gathering of the Circle?”
   Silvius shook his head, gasping. “I don’t – I don’t know - ”
   All Silvius could manage was a horrified gurgle before Guile jerked back, the mouth in his stomach lurching forward with lightning speed to consume the man in two messy bites. The maw disappeared back into his torso almost as quickly as it had come, one slimy tongue snaking out to lick blood off of a jagged tooth before vanishing again. Guile took a handful of deep breaths before he brushed himself off and turned his attentions to the foggy ravine around him. He strained his hearing to its limit, and caught the faint sounds of labored, trembling breath further up the hill. He could only imagine Jyrr’s fear over the terror lurking in the mist, and it made him smile. He didn’t pursue him quite yet though, nor his other companion. There was plenty of time.
   He frowned to himself as he replayed Jyrr’s overheard words in his head. A gathering of the Circle… that could only mean one thing. Perhaps it was time he played a card of his own in this little game.
   Guile reached a hand into one of the many pockets along his legs and drew out a tiny vial. He carefully removed the cork and held it close to his face, speaking in a hushed voice as a curl of yellow smoke wafted up from the small container. “The Beetle Kingdom’s Boneyard. You have seven hours.”
   The wisp of smoke solidified into a wasp with a long, wicked stinger. It flew off almost immediately, heading due north. Guile grinned to himself as he watched the tiny insect until the mist obscured its flight, and then resumed his casual pursuit.
   Perhaps the change in the air was too minute, or perhaps he was too preoccupied to notice, as the stillness in the fog around him lingered a fraction colder than it had before.
   Slayd had always liked the stretches of barrows to the south of the Beetle King’s ruined castle. The pale flowers grew thicker on the ground, and there always seemed to be a light breeze in the air. He found himself in a pensive mood, wandering beside the burial mounds that occasionally led to crumbling monuments or ancient marking stones long bereft of their inscriptions. He would linger around a cairn or a tombstone for a few moments, feeling the moss and lichen on its rough surface before moving on, always going steadily south.
   It had been several days since he had last seen Guile. His guardian’s absence wasn’t unexpected – he had received a short note from a dragonfly that explained his whereabouts and the reasoning behind it – but it still irritated him. Slayd ran a hand through his ribbony hair and sighed. “I don’t see why he always thinks it has to be him who goes after Jyrr. There are plenty of others just as capable around here. Though…” He stepped to the side of a fallen grave stone and crouched to touch its rough surface. “Though he probably went after him this time just to avoid me.”
   He rose and continued his wandering. These past few days had been quiet, without Guile, Sirrhas, or even his master to keep him company. But ever since he had gotten this time to think, he had been restless and had taken to venturing out on paths little known to him. The trail he was following now was entirely new to him, even though he had spent so much time in the Beetle Kingdom in years past. Something strange and visceral drew him along, quiet and insistent and almost magnetic in its pull. He didn’t question it.
   His wandering took him only a few miles from the castle ruins, but the mist in the air already obscured the hill it rested upon. Slayd felt very alone, and part of him was glad of it. Some of the memories had come as quite a shock, and he was having a difficult time adjusting to the realization of how ridiculous he had been acting ever since Guile had drawn him from the Temple of Mirrors. That place had changed him so much… Slayd had to admit that he didn’t remember much about the temple, only that passing over its threshold had felt like moving through a dream. It had been surreal and almost intangible to him, as if it hadn’t really been there at all, except perhaps only in his mind’s eye.
   And as he walked, that strange feeling of dreaming euphoria was slipping back over him again. Slayd paused for a moment and frowned. In the mist just ahead of him could see smooth white stones, fallen in disordered heaps along the lines of what had once been a building. There was no roof, not anymore, and only a few pillars were left standing, their smooth lines and stark white caps defying the decay around them. The masonry stood upon a wide dais adorned with a mosaic of tile, colors long since faded – if there had been any there to begin with.
   Slayd inched his way through the ruins, a strange feeling of emptiness creeping into his stomach. “Somehow familiar…”
   Within the square of crumbling stone, Slayd passed curious steps that led to small platforms, most of which had nothing displayed on them anymore. But as he made his way closer to the center, he found glass shards scattered over some of them, and others had broken frames that might have once held mirrors or windows. He bent to pick up one of the pieces, studying his splintered reflection in its cracked surface. “Very familiar indeed.”
   He suddenly turned and strode around the next pillar, both expecting and fearing that his intuition was correct. As he turned the corner, he spotted the single platform that remained intact. It held the only mirror that was whole, the only one without crack or blemish.
   Slayd froze, his mind rushing at a feverish pace that belied his sluggish understanding. The Beetle King’s castle lay close to the furthest perimeter of his kingdom, but that border was not one that marked a boundary to another of the insect kings’ realms. It edged its way against the Veil. The shades made their way into it before they passed on to the Halls of Satarin, though few living in Dehalen knew how.
   The empty feeling in Slayd’s stomach suddenly grew sharp and painful, and he leaned hard against the nearest pillar. He felt dizzy and more than a little short of breath. “I am not in the Veil, I am sure of that.” He squeezed his eyes shut and willed himself to calm down. “But I am probably very, very close. I have heard that the edges of the Veil can shift and move, and perhaps that is what has happened here. Perhaps once upon a time this had been within its reach…”
   The single intact mirror upon the steps in front of Slayd made no comment to his spoken guesses. He peered up at its clouded surface, but it seemed to reflect only the fog around him. Slayd’s curiosity piqued, and against all better judgment he crept up the steps. He saw his reflection emerge from the haze as he did. He saw his small body, his large dark eyes, his red ribbony hair. He gazed at himself for long moments, marveling at how much he had changed since before he had ran away. He sighed and turned to leave, but a familiar and brief flash in the mirror made him freeze.
   “What could that…” He cautiously returned his eyes to its reflective surface. At first nothing seemed to be different. He still saw himself, he still saw the fog behind him. But as he gazed, his reflection seemed to shift and shimmer, and as Slayd watched it began to change.
   Slayd saw himself as a small child, with dark skin and dark hair to match it, eyes vibrant and shining with a knowing twinkle. And then he saw himself pallid and sickly, vacant eye sockets dripping with maggots and staring back at him with empty confusion. Another shimmer through the mirror and Slayd was gazing long into the past. He stared, openmouthed, at the tall young man he used to be, long auburn hair falling over well-toned shoulders, a smirk playing on an angular face lit by narrowed eyes filled with both playful mischief and dark malevolence. Fascinated, Slayd watched as his own reflection winked at him and placed a hand against the mirror, eyes sparkling with a glint that only deepened with a wide grin.
   “I’m…” Whatever Slayd had intended to say fell apart before he could even form the words. His fingers trembled as he brought his own hand up, achingly slow, to meet the hand his reflection pressed against its side of the glass. As their fingertips touched, a brilliant light flashed over Slayd’s vision, and everything turned blindingly white.


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