Chapter 43: Sealing Away.

  Lady Bird’s urgency quickly became apparent as Slayd rode on. Thick clouds were forming, heavy and black with rain, twisting in a spiral over the hill where the castle ruins stood. Lightning flashed from within, illuminating the landscape to highlight wind-whipped grasses and trembling trees. Slayd could hear a steady low rumble coming up from the ground, echoed occasionally by the boom of thunder from above.
   As soon as the horse’s hooves hit the stone of the first stair, Slayd jumped off and began to run almost before he hit the ground. But as he ascended the steps that led to the crumbling archway, his approach slowed abruptly.
   The bloodied corpses of at least a dozen people lay scattered over the stair, most charred or mangled to the point beyond recognition, but on one he could identify an insignia used by the elite of the Maggot King’s guard. He climbed the last of the steps with renewed caution.
   He could see his master standing just ahead of the archway, with the Beetle King by his side and Guile close behind. Jyrr was crouched on the ground before them, with a young man barring the way between Jyrr and the Lich King.
   “Drael? What is he doing here?” Slayd’s words were to himself, but they got swept away in the wind anyway. He approached his master slowly, eyes going from one face to another to try to get a better handle on the situation.
   As his eyes landed on Guile, his mouth fell open. Guile met his gaze with dark and shining eyes, and even though there was nothing in the sky to reflect, Slayd thought he could see the stars within them. Guile met his stare with one of his own, his eyebrows shooting up at Slayd’s newly-aged body. But there was no time for either to ask questions.
   Drael shouted something at Lord Moroloth, but most of his words were carried away by the flash of lightning and the rumble of the storm. Slayd could only make out the last of it.
   “You can’t just do this - he already gave up! You can’t just kill someone who’s helpless!” His voice was hoarse from what must have been a much longer bout of screaming than what Slayd had just now managed to overhear. “You’ll have to get through me to get to him!”
   The Lich King did not bother answering the boy. He merely extended two fingers towards him and raised an eyebrow.
   Drael’s eyes went wide. “What – ” He clutched at his throat, gasping and retching.
   “Drael?” Jyrr finally managed to speak from his place on the ground, and he dragged his bloodied body up closer to his friend and gripped his knee.
   But Drael couldn’t answer him. He vomited up a sticky black ooze and Slayd watched in rapt horror as two thin insectile legs stretched out of his mouth. Drael’s bulging eyes grew even wider and he shook his head violently, thrashing as he collapsed on the ground. Jyrr screamed his name and clutched one shoulder, shaking him. “Drael, no! This can’t be happening, not now, he didn’t do anything wrong – ”
   But Jyrr’s words couldn’t help him at all. Two more insect legs emerged from Drael’s mouth, bracing against his jaw with such pressure they dislocated the joints and tore the flesh of his mouth apart. With a wet snap that could be heard even over the rumble of the gathering storm, Drael’s whole head was thrown back and his entire lower jaw was ripped from his face. Dozens of thin legs shot out from the wound and rapidly spread lower. Slayd stared, fascinated, as Drael began to be torn apart from the inside out. Jyrr’s frantic screams were peppered with pleas for his friend’s life, but they were ignored by Moroloth.
   Slayd found his feet again and ascended the remaining steps to stand beside the Beetle King. Guile had approached their master, and he laid one hand on his sleeve. “May I finish him, my lord? He is not worth so much of your effort.”
   Moroloth simply inclined his head. “Spare the Maggot King’s son, for now. His own blood shall deal with him as they see fit. Or Slayd, if he so chooses.”
   Guile bowed once before turning to Drael, who was writhing on the ground in seizures. Thin jointed legs sprouted in a line all the way from his throat to his sternum, slowly opening his chest. Jyrr had pulled his friend as best he could into his lap, still screaming his name.
   Guile shoved Jyrr away, and without preamble his maw lurched out of his stomach. It shrieked and opened wide, twin tongues wrapping around Drael before they dragged his thrashing body into their mouth, behind jagged teeth and slippery lips. The mouth closed with a sickening crunch and Guile turned to gaze down at Jyrr, studying his bloodied, sobbing form with narrowed eyes. Jyrr stared back at him, shock making him tremble. His own eyes locked onto Guile’s new ones, and Jyrr blanched and fainted.
   The Lich King turned from the scene and extended a hand to Slayd, who took it in relief. Moroloth smiled and gave his heir’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I am pleased to see that you have found yourself again, my child. And not a moment too soon. With the Grigora amassing over the sea, our time is no longer our own.” He strode over to where Guile still stood and held out a hand to him, speaking to the both of them. “I must go. The insect kings must see with their own eyes that I live and breathe once again, else their courage will fail them. I intend to call upon each kingdom, even the least of their number, and soothe the fears of the people. There will be a summoning when I return to Amoth Shyr, and it is there that we will end this game of hunter and hunted.”
   Guile knelt beside his master before taking his offered hand. He stared up at the sky, eying the roiling clouds. A powerful wind was whirling around them in the gathering storm and Moroloth had to speak above the noise to be heard, but his voice carried easily. “You shall return to Amoth Shyr and prepare for my arrival. When we leave these hallowed ruins it will be some months before I return to our tower, but make haste as best you can. There the Asman Lar will meet you, if they have not formed a Circle there already.”
   The Lich King released their hands and turned to Sirrhas, grasping his shoulder. “Goodbye, my friend. I shall not see you again until my shade finally concedes to enter the Halls of Satarin.”
   Sirrhas embraced and kissed him in response, the sound of wind and thunder obscuring any words that he might have said from Slayd’s straining ears.
   The storm around them only intensified, rain lashing against Slayd’s face like the sting of a whip, the howling of the wind roaring in his head. He squinted against the rain and blinked up at the wild sky. “What’s that?”
   Flashes of lightning illuminated a dark form tearing down from the billowing storm, and all eyes turned to watch it descend. When it broke free of the clouds, Slayd could see that it was not one but two massive chariots, iron frames glinting with every flash and wheels spinning almost in time with the heavy rumbles of thunder. They were each pulled by a brace of winged drakes, straining at their harnesses and breathing steam. At the helm of the lead chariot stood a shadowy figure dressed in heavy armor, and Slayd smiled a little. He nodded to the Beetle King’s son as he circled the chariots down to the ground and pulled them to a stop before the Lich King and his servants.
   Aesalus bowed low to Lord Moroloth and Slayd, the absence of his physical body only made more apparent by the armor he wore. “I await your command, my lord.”
   Lord Moroloth boarded the chariot, murmuring something Slayd could not hear to Aesalus before he turned and nodded to Slayd. “The time is nigh for the Beetle King to seal this realm away. Tarry no longer than necessary. Go to Amoth Shyr.”
   With those words Aesalus took the reins, and the drakes of the lead chariot launched themselves skyward with a booming roar and vanished into the black clouds amidst flashes of lighting.
   The Beetle King grasped Slayd’s shoulder, whose newly-aged body was tall enough now to look him squarely in the eye. “Here is where I say farewell, Heir of Moroloth. Your destiny rides hard to meet you, and if you do not run to meet it in return, it will pass you by.”
   Slayd made to embrace him, but Sirrhas guided Slayd by the shoulder towards the remaining chariot. The Beetle King’s eyes fell on Jyrr’s prone form, and he raised an eyebrow. “He cannot stay here. He should be returned to his father.”
   Guile came up beside them and hauled Jyrr’s limp body to the chariot, dumping him unceremoniously in the back. “And returned he shall be. Goodbye, Beetle King.”
   But before Guile could join Slayd and Jyrr in the chariot, Sirrhas grabbed his arm and turned him around, pressing their lips together in a sudden kiss. “Farewell, unexpected prince of dark places. You are precious to me, more precious than death itself. I cannot imagine your soul will ever come to the Halls of Satarin, yet I hope to see you again.”
   Guile pulled quickly away from him, startled eyes large. He shook his head. “We will never meet again, Beetle King.”
   “Then so be it.”
   Guile boarded the chariot without trusting himself to any more words, pointedly ignoring Slayd’s gaping stare as he took the reins and loosed the drakes to launch themselves into the roiling sky. Tendrils of darkness were already slipping over the horizon, and it took all of Guile’s concentration to goad the beasts on as high and as fast as they were capable. The rumble of thunder blended with a grinding roar that shook the chariot violently as they careened through black clouds and driving rain, the sealing magic of the Beetle King hard on their heels.
   Slayd clapped his hands over his ears and ducked low, cringing each time a bolt of lightning shot across the sky. Ragged shreds of clouds flew by his head, so thick he swore he could feel them sting at his face. But they cleared the storm in mere moments, breaking free of the swirling chaos and into a clear and inky sky studded with the brilliance of constellations.
   Slayd gasped and slid down to the floor of the chariot, dizzy with their rapid ascent. But Guile did not slow their pace even after they had cleared the sealing magic, and instead he drove the drakes on as quickly as he could manage.
   Slayd took a long moment to catch his breath again before pulling himself back to his feet. He ran his fingers through his ribbony hair, his eyes taking in the starlight and a thin sliver of a moon. He turned his attention to Guile, studying his guardian as Guile tried vainly to focus all of his concentration on the chariot and ignoring his charge’s scrutiny.
   “Sirrhas never felt anything for me, did he.”
   It wasn’t a question, and Guile didn’t answer as if it was. He merely squeezed his new eyes shut for a moment before returning his gaze ahead.
   Slayd nodded once, slowly. “He felt something for you, though.”
   The pace of the chariot’s flight through the sky slowed as Guile’s grip on the reins slackened. He had no response at all for that one. But he didn’t have to say anything, because Slayd seemed to be answering everything for him, anyway.
   “He feels very little for anyone. I’ve always known that. Even our master, who has been so close to him for so many centuries, only barely earns his concern. And yet he desired you.” Slayd turned and leaned his arms against the edge of the car, eyes studying the misty ground far below them. “And you… say nothing of it. You do not feel for him?”
   Guile shook his head, frustrated with himself. “I have no idea what I feel, Slayd. And…” He let out a sigh, sounding tired and even a little wounded. “And it does not matter anymore, regardless.”
   “I suppose not.”
   An uncomfortable silence stretched between them, and Slayd returned his attention to the passing of the land below them. He couldn’t let himself be too angry at his guardian, even though part of him wanted to tear Guile apart for laying claim to something Slayd had wanted the most, even if he had done it unintentionally and even unwillingly. And he was right as well – it didn’t matter anymore, for neither of them would ever see Sirrhas again while they still lived. Slayd rubbed the bridge of his nose and echoed Guile’s sigh. Nothing ever seemed fair in this world, or in any other, Slayd imagined.
   “…You look beautiful.”
   Slayd turned back to his guardian, but Guile’s eyes were fixed on the black horizon ahead of them. He talked to the air instead. “Just like you did so long ago. It’s… uncanny.”
   Slayd nodded and stepped up to stand beside his guardian. His proximity only managed to accentuate the new difference in their height, making Slayd almost smile. “I’m not entirely sure how it happened. But… I’m certainly glad that it did. I feel myself again, though I’m still frustrated I still cannot feel magic coursing through my blood.”
   Guile nodded slowly. “You found the ruins of a temple, didn’t you?”
   But before Slayd could reply, a faint groan drew both his and Guile’s attention. Jyrr rolled over in the back of the chariot, eyes fluttering open as he sucked in a shuddering breath. He tried to sit up, but the effort made him pant and whimper. He only managed to prop himself up against the side of the car and clutched at his bloodied chest. “Where…”
   “You’re on your way back to the Maggot Kingdom, for all I care,” Slayd muttered, eyeing the battered man. “We should be passing into the Worm Kingdom soon enough, and I intend on sending you back to your father. I’m debating whether it should be in pieces or not.”
   Jyrr flinched hard at Slayd’s words and turned huge eyes up to him. “I did not intend –”
   “I give a damn, really.” He sneered down at Jyrr and crossed his arms. “I’m tired of you. Whatever charm you had, it’s certainly gone now. You’re only alive right now because the Maggot King deserves an explanation coming from your mouth.”
   Jyrr nodded miserably, but still tried to protest. “But please, dear one, if I return –”
   “No. I’m done listening to you. Either shut up or you’ll spend the rest of the journey in Guile’s stomach.”
   What little color was left in Jyrr’s face drained away, and his bulging eyes grew even wider. Guile tossed a glance over his shoulder to raise an eyebrow at Jyrr, his new eyes taking in the starlight and reflecting them back in twisted and unnatural ways.
   Jyrr shook his head wildly, speaking so fast Slayd had a hard time keeping up. “Slayd, dear one, my lord, you cannot trust that monster! Do you even know what those evil eyes of his mean?”
   Slayd frowned, turning a bemused expression to his guardian. But before Guile could utter a word, a heavy gust of wind came screaming out of nowhere and slammed into the chariot so hard it tore the reins from Guile’s hands and shook a wheel loose, tossing the chariot through the air as if it were a toy. Following close on the tail of the wind was a piercing, keening cry that made Slayd’s blood run icy cold. The drakes tossed their heads and strained against their harnesses, wild without the reins to pull them in. The chariot bucked and rolled, and all three occupants clung to the edges of the car.
   And then Slayd heard a rustle of feathered wings, and his vision was obscured by the blackest shadow he had ever seen, darker than dreams and filled with a malevolence Slayd thought would have killed him had it been directed his way. His grip on the edge of the car faltered, and his heart jumped to his throat as the chariot spiraled out of control. The metal slipped from his hands and he fell, the sound of shrieking hatred ringing in his ears.


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