Chapter 44: Blood Ties.
As he came to, the first thing Slayd noticed was the feathery touch of grass tickling his nose. He sat up and groaned, rubbing the back of his neck as he looked around. He had landed in a grassy meadow, edged with ferns and dotted with large yellow flowers. A twisted snarl of metal snagged in the branches of a downed tree told Slayd what had happened to their chariot, though there was no sign of the drakes that had pulled it, nor any of Guile or Jyrr.
A myriad of fireflies blinked their tiny lights as they floated lazily through the air, and Slayd could hear the faint bubbling of a creek somewhere off to his left. Beyond the ferns his vision was limited by a light mist, but Slayd didn’t need to see far to know that steep ravine walls suddenly shot up on either side, rising many thousands of feet to meet the sky. He had never spent much time in the Worm Kingdom, but its tree-covered mountains and deep, narrow valleys were unforgettable in their beauty. And in their danger. Footing was treacherous here, and Slayd took care as he picked himself up off the ground and made his way towards the remains of the chariot.
A handful of white feathers caught in the branches of the tree drew his attention. "I do hope he’s all right…" Slayd eyed the ground for any trace of tracks through the grass, and listened carefully for any sign of movement around him.
He didn’t have to look far. A raspy grunt a handful of yards away told him where Guile had landed, and a moment later Slayd could see his guardian heave himself a little unsteadily to his feet. Slayd waved and made his way to Guile’s side. "What happened?"
Guile shook his head, a dark look passing over his eyes. "I fear we should not take to the air for travel, Slayd. While we know our master will be in no danger he cannot easily handle, we on the other hand risk our lives. That was a Grigora."
The shiver that ran up Guile’s spine was obvious, and Slayd echoed it. "Well, what now? We cannot let Jyrr wander around freely, and we need to keep moving. We must meet with the Worm King for direction."
Guile nodded. "One thing at a time. Jyrr first."
"You go south. I’ll follow the ravine north. We meet back at what’s left of the chariot within the hour, whether we find him or no."
Guile dipped his head in a small bow and turned without another word, making his way through fern and grass. Slayd eyed him for a moment, wondering at Guile’s odd behavior before he set out north.
Jyrr couldn’t possibly have gotten far. Slayd had seen how injured he already was, and even Jyrr’s tireless wings couldn’t do him much good now that they were in tatters. Slayd also had a hunch that Jyrr was far too exhausted to use his magic to dissolve into a swarm of flies, which would make picking up on his trail a much simpler task.
And simple it was. Slayd spotted a rough patch of red smeared over crushed ferns, and he followed the trail of blood further away, deeper into the thick underbrush. The trail took him over a narrow brook and into a small copse of trees, dense with ferns and the heady scent of flowers.
Slayd moved with caution. These steep valleys were riddles with vast caverns and intricate tunnels, and unexpected sinkholes often opened up beneath your feet if you were not careful where you stepped. He ducked underneath a low branch and pulled a fern away from his view, only to quickly turn away. The blood trail had not been Jyrr’s, but one of the drakes. It lay mangled and broken, looking almost as if it had been flayed open by a crazed hand.
Slayd returned the way he had come, muttering to himself. "I wonder if whatever Grigora had knocked our chariot from the sky decided to return, and hunt down the drakes. I did not believe they had many natural enemies…"
He shook his head and took another route through a meadow of ferns, eyes occasionally flicking up to the sky, wondering what unseen eyes or lurking bodies lay hidden in the clouds above. He tried to focus on the task at hand, but as the moments dragged on, it became clear that if Jyrr had been anywhere near here, he had left no sign of his passing.
Slayd sighed and raked a hand through his ribbony hair. "Why do I feel as if we are wasting time?" He shook his head and intended on turning around, but he paused and squinted at the patch of meadow just ahead. "Is that… a road?"
Guile had just as little luck as Slayd with finding their fugitive, and he picked his way back to the remains of the chariot, cursing quietly under his breath. Slayd was waiting for him there, arms crossed and eyes scanning the sky.
"I cannot find any sign of him," Guile muttered as he approached. "If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’d dissolved into a swarm."
Slayd shook his head, eyes still on the clouds overhead. "Not likely in his condition. I don’t like it here, Guile. I feel as though we’re being watched by hateful eyes. We should move on."
Guile nodded in agreement. "We have already lost enough time as it is. We should find a road - "
"I’ve already found one." Slayd turned and made his way through grass and ferns, and Guile followed without another word.
There was indeed a road. A narrow and winding one, made of flat river pebbles. It followed the contour of the ravine floor, often running alongside a babbling creek and occasionally veering off into meadows thick with yellow flowers. As they walked, they gathered a host of fireflies, flitting about them and flashing their tiny lights. They seemed curious about this pair of strangers, and their presence made Slayd smile.
But the smile slowly faded as he glanced sidelong at his guardian, who seemed to be making a point not to look at him. Slayd sighed. "What is it, Guile?"
"What is what?"
"You’re on edge."
Guile smirked. "We are in a valley unfamiliar, being stalked by Grigora, with a fugitive on the loose. I would expect my state of mind to be a little on edge."
Slayd shook his head and scowled. "You know very well that’s not what I meant. You’re on edge with me."
"I don’t know what you’re – there!"
Before Slayd could say anything else, Guile had lurched through the ferns on the side of the road and tore across a meadow, chasing after a small figure Slayd recognized belatedly as Jyrr. Both vanished into the mist in seconds, leaving Slayd alone on the road.
Jyrr may have been quick on his feet, but his injuries prevented him from getting far. It wasn’t long before he stumbled in his flight, and Guile overtook him in mere moments. In a last-ditch effort to save himself Jyrr had scrambled inside a fallen log, but Guile easily spotted his hiding place and crouched beside the hollow, grinning. "Well now, that was productive. What do you think you will accomplish by hiding?"
Jyrr whimpered and shook his head, huge eyes riveted on Guile. I – I was a fool to ever believe I could come to match you. Your eyes – you - "
"Yes, yes, whatever. You are a fool, but for much more than that. Come out."
"You’ll kill me if I do."
Guile shrugged, nonchalant. "Or I could kill you right now. There is not a whole lot of difference."
Jyrr only shook his head again and backed further into the hollow of the log. Guile snarled and lunged forward in an attempt to grab the terrified man, but Jyrr was just beyond his reach. He was just about to start tearing away bark and rotting wood when a chilling cry echoed through the peaks far above them. He sat back to scan the skies, but the haze of mist grew thick and white just beyond the branches of the trees. He suppressed a shudder and chuckled low to himself before peering again into the hollow. "Or I can leave you here to wander the crags and ravines of the Worm Kingdom, until one of the Grigora finds you and snatches your worthless life away."
All color had blanched from Jyrr’s face, but he didn’t move. "So I die either way."
Guile sighed in irritation and extended a hand to Jyrr, beckoning as gently as he could bring himself to do without wanting to retch. "Come here, Jyrr. I won’t hurt you if you obey me. It is your father or Slayd who will decide your fate, not I."
Jyrr’s large eyes glanced from side to side in a futile effort to find another way of escape, but it was painfully obvious he had nowhere else to go. Guile waited for the reality of his situation to sink into Jyrr, who stared helplessly up at him as tears welled up in his eyes. He shook his head even as his resolve crumbled, and he inched closer to Guile, still hovering beyond his reach.
Gritting his teeth with having to repeat himself, Guile beckoned again. "I’ll not hurt you. Take my hand, Jyrr."
Guile didn’t know if it was fear of retaliation, sheer exhaustion, or the terror of the Grigora lurking in the clouds that finally drove Jyrr to give up, but he finally took Guile’s offered hand. He was promptly dragged from the hollow and thrown to the ground, where he flinched and cowered under Guile’s harsh gaze. Guile crouched down next to him and grabbed his wrist, turning Jyrr so he could inspect a deep gash that ran the length of his shoulder down to the center of his chest. "My master inflicted these wounds."
Jyrr nodded, though it wasn’t a question. Guile’s brow knitted up in thought before he grunted and hauled Jyrr to his feet, keeping a tight grip on his wrist. "Follow. Slayd has found a road."
The rustling of the ferns signaled Guile’s return, and Slayd ducked out from under the tree he had been hiding under. "It’s about time. I heard a demon’s scream a few moments ago, and I’d rather not be cowering out in the open much longer than necessary. All roads in this realm lead to the Worm King’s palace, right?"
Guile nodded, yanking Jyrr behind him as he stepped from the underbrush to stand beside Slayd. "There are few, and they are all the king’s highway. Surely he knows of our ungainly arrival."
Slayd grunted and waved a hand at Jyrr. "Well heal him so he won’t hold us back. Then we can be on our way."
Guile only shook his head. "I cannot, Slayd. My magic can heal many things, even to the point of restoring life, but the one thing it can never heal is wounds inflicted by our master."
"…I see." Slayd eyed Jyrr’s battered body and sneered down at him. "Then you’re lucky to be as whole as you are. The only reason I can imagine he had shown you such mercy would be his fondness for your father."
Jyrr shifted from foot to foot and murmured what sounded like an agreement, but refused to meet Slayd’s eyes.
"Don’t slow me down." Slayd turned and started down the road. Guile followed beside him, dragging Jyrr along by his wrist.
Their pace was brisk, and they made good time. The fireflies that had found their presence so intriguing when they first arrived had returned, and trailed behind them as if they were a silent glowing entourage. They heard no more unearthly shrieks, though there was a heavy presence lurking in the sky that each of them could feel.
Slayd tried not to think about the unseen demons in the clouds hanging about the crags above their heads and instead focused attention on Guile. It was strange, having to look down instead of up at his guardian to make eye contact. Both he and his guardian had changed significantly in a very short amount of time, and he wasn’t entirely sure about what had spurred the changes, nor what they could mean. That, and Guile’s restless behavior seemed to have reached a razor-sharp peak – he could practically feel the tension sloughing off Guile’s shoulders.
He glanced sidelong at his guardian as he walked, but Guile seemed to be making a point not to look at him. Slayd sighed. "Now is as good a time as any, Guile."
His guardian frowned and made a questioning noise in the back of his throat. "As good a time for what?"
"While we were in the halls of the Beetle King, you promised me you would tell me many things, once we were beyond those walls. We are well away from them now. And you might as well also tell me what the hell happened to your eyes, and why Jyrr is so afraid of them."
Guile shifted his grip on Jyrr’s wrist and grumbled. "I’m not too pleased to have his ears listening to - "
"Like I give a damn. He doesn’t matter anymore anyway. I’ve waited this long, tell me."
Guile came to a stop and glared steadily at the ground, his already-firm grip on Jyrr growing tighter and causing the other man to whimper. Guile looked from Slayd to Jyrr and back again before grabbing Jyrr by the head and shoving him down, forcing him to sit on the ground. "Stay, else I break your legs."
Jyrr responded with a rapid nod and crossed his legs underneath him, eyes huge. Guile turned from him and regarded his charge with dark and narrowed eyes, but Slayd just crossed his arms and stared down at him, eyebrows raised expectantly.
"You asked much of me when you first desired to know, Slayd. It has been kept from you and from all of Dehalen purposefully, and I do not know if I am going against our master’s will by telling you now."
A shadow of doubt fell over Slayd’s face, but it was replaced quickly by iron will. "I want to know."
Guile nodded, willing his momentary anger at Slayd’s audacity to dissipate. "Before you were created, my true eyes had been replaced. You know that much already. They were replaced to form wards of protection over me, and to bind much of my power within. I have dark and dangerous magic roiling inside me, and those wards kept it in check."
Jyrr stirred and shook his head from his seat on the ground. "He’s not telling you everything, Slayd. That’s not all that - "
Guile turned suddenly to Jyrr, fist coming within inches of the side of his head before he stopped himself. Jyrr ducked and shivered in anticipation of the blow that never came, but Guile only gritted his teeth. "Shut your mouth, Jyrr, before I consider breaking my promise not to harm you further."
Slayd rolled his eyes, but nodded to Guile. "What you have just told me I did already know, or at least guessed at. The seals upon your eyes must have been powerful."
Guile turned from Jyrr to face Slayd again. "Yes. They were strong wards indeed, for they did not vanish even when I tore my eyes out in sorrow on the shores of Lake Khorakh." He reached a hand up to Slayd’s face and tucked a strand of ribbony hair behind his ear.
Slayd quirked half a smile and covered Guile’s hand with his own. "You are hopeless, Guile. But you are not telling me what I wish to know."
Guile sighed and turned from his charge, directing his gaze to the misty road ahead of them. "When the Beetle King restored my true eyes, the water of that reflecting pool washed away the spells that bound me. And eyes like these have haunted the nightmares of all Dehalen for long millennia past. The blood of the Demon King runs through my veins."
Slayd stared blankly at his guardian for a long moment before his mouth fell open, and a string of whispered words in many languages spilled out. But he fell silent again, and continued staring until finally he grasped Guile’s shoulder to turn him to face him. He tilted Guile’s chin up to force eye contact, and he studied those fathomless reflections of darkness until he felt like he was falling into them. "And it was our master who pulled you from your realm, so long ago. And it was he who tore the Demon King from the sky, he who mortally wounded him and died with him upon the Adinon Plain. Tell me, how is it you do not hate him?"
A smile that Slayd could only describe as defeated quirked up the corner of Guile’s mouth. "When you lose everything you have ever known, you must replace it with something even greater, if you ever receive the chance. Lord Moroloth took everything away from me but gave me so much in return. And then he gave me you."
Slayd scowled and turned quickly away, but in less than a moment he turned back again, suddenly grabbing Guile and yanking him into a hard embrace. "Small wonder you became the man you are today. This entire world hates you, if they ever knew what you are, where you come from. You are a monster and a fool, Guile. But I would not have you any other way."
Guile hesitated before returning Slayd’s embrace. "If I were anything less, I would not have been able to bear the bittersweet torture of living in this world."
"He lies, Slayd."
Both Guile and Slayd turned to regard Jyrr. He had momentarily been forgotten, and now he lay slumped against a tree growing close to the side of the road, clutching at his injured shoulder and staring at Guile, eyes filled with old fear. "I have told you, long ago and again now. You cannot trust him. Were he not under the hand of the Lich King, he would kill all of us and abandon this world within a single beat of his shriveled heart."
Slayd raised an eyebrow and crouched down next to Jyrr." Oh? And who would you have me trust, Jyrr? You?"
Jyrr flinched but said nothing. Slayd reached out a hand and grabbed a fistful of Jyrr’s short hair, yanking him close to snarl in his face. "I have seen Guile’s heart, Jyrr, and it is far from shriveled. Black and bleeding venom, but whole. He can no more betray me than deny his own nature. Don’t insult my guardian with your sniveling complaints."
The faint sound of hooves on gravel coming up the road interrupted them and Slayd stood, squinting into the mist. Guile knelt to tear a strip of cloth from the hem of his clothes, wrapping it around his head to hide his eyes.
Slayd cocked his head. "Guile? If you blindfold yourself, you - "
"Since when have I needed eyes to see?"
Slayd smiled, and turned his attention to the approaching sound.