Chapter 45: Shadows on the Crags.

  A small covered carriage pulled by a pair of Caecilian bulls rolled along the road, pulling up to a stop beside the trio. The driver slid off of his seat and onto the ground, bowing low to Slayd. "My lord! Oh, how relieved I am to see you alive and whole! The Worm King saw with his second self when your chariot was torn from the sky, and he feared the worst when the demon slaughtered your steeds."
   Slayd inclined his head briefly before approaching the carriage to rub the nose of one of the blind bulls. "Did the king also see where the demon disappeared to? We have heard its screams and felt its presence, but have seen nothing."
   The coachman slowly shook his head, opening the carriage door for Slayd. "There is no telling. The peaks hide many shadows. Come, we mustn’t tarry. By the courtesy of the Worm King and that of the Baron von Leuchtkäfer, I welcome you to the Worm Kingdom and offer you my coach. The Worm King would be delighted to see you again, and to assist you in any way he might be able."
   "Thank you." Slayd climbed into the carriage, brushing off the driver’s attempt to help him inside. Instead, the coachman turned to Guile and Jyrr. His small eyes widened behind his heavy spectacles when he saw the ugly wounds criss-crossing Jyrr’s body. "Oh my – you need to be tended to." He moved to help Jyrr stand, mumbling partly to himself and partly to Jyrr. "As soon as we arrive at the palace, we will call our healers to -"
   He was pushed roughly aside by Guile. "Don’t touch him." He leaned down and grabbed Jyrr by his arm, yanking him to his feet and shouldering by the fretting man. "His wounds cannot be healed by magic, only time. Leave him to me."
   "Our healers are very skilled, guardian, he can be -"
   "And would you undo the work of the Lich King himself? I said leave him to me."
   The coachman eyed Guile before giving him a stiff bow. "As the heir's guardian wishes."
   Guile climbed into the carriage, but paused on the step. "How far?"
   The coachman took his seat at the head of the carriage, shrugging as he took the reins. "I was sent from an outpost, far from the palace. It will take several hours to reach the Worm King. But the road becomes rough before we reach the final stretch. I can only take you so far."
   "Right." Guile grunted and climbed inside, dragging Jyrr in behind him. The carriage jostled to life, and they continued down the road.
   The three grudging companions spent the first hour of their ride in tired silence. The dim misty valley began to brighten a fraction with the coming of another sunless dawn and the fog lifted in patches, allowing Slayd to see narrow strips of meadow meet the sudden rise of the valley walls. Ferns and grasses waved in a slight breeze that carried the heady aroma of those yellow flowers, and Slayd inhaled slowly, enjoying their scent. He rested an arm on the window’s ledge, cradling the side of his head in his palm. This past day had gone by in a whirlwind of bewilderment, and its passing had caused both great excitement and sorrow. He stole a glance at Guile, who was glowering at Jyrr. He had been shocked by his guardian more than once today… Not only at the revelation of his bloodline, but also at the knowledge that the Beetle King had desired Guile. Slayd sighed, frowning at the fireflies that winked on and off at their passing. We all must make sacrifices, I suppose.
   Slayd yawned and rubbed at his eyes, leaning back and stretching before resting his head on Guile’s shoulder.
   His guardian tensed for a moment, wondering at motive. But he didn’t seem to think about it too long before he extended a hand over to Slayd, palm up. Though Guile couldn’t see it from his position, Slayd smiled and took the invitation, threading his fingers in Guile’s and giving his hand a light squeeze. He closed his eyes and quickly fell into a doze, lulled to sleep by the scent of flowers and the gentle breeze passing through the windows.
   Neither Guile nor Jyrr seemed to appreciate the atmosphere, however. Jyrr curled himself into a ball and rested his chin on his knees, staring studiously at the floor of the carriage. Behind the gauze that bound his eyes, Guile regarded him with petulance before reaching over with his free hand to tap the side of Jyrr’s temple with a clawed finger. "You will say nothing of what I have told Slayd, not to anyone. Nor will you say anything of my eyes. Are we clear?"
   Jyrr nodded, never taking his gaze away from the floor. "As crystal," he murmured.
   Guile nodded once in satisfaction and the carriage fell into relative silence, save for the clatter of wheel over stone and the slither-clop of the bulls’ hooves and tails. They lost track of time as the carriage rolled on, always following the ravine floor, always sloping down and to the southwest.
   Slayd yawned and muttered in his sleep, adjusting his position and burying his head in the crook of Guile’s neck, breath tickling the feathers sprouting from his shoulders. Guile shifted to accommodate him, and Jyrr ventured to peer over at Slayd, earning a raised eyebrow from Guile. "What is it?"
   Jyrr ducked his head down again. "Nothing – I am merely curious about how he has changed."
   "Or simply gone back to normal," Guile grunted. "It should not surprise you that once he began to remember, the physical reflection of who he once was would also come to mirror his restored memories."
   "I… had not thought of that."
   "You don’t think much, Jyrr."
   "That much is painfully obvious to me." He rubbed a hand over swollen red eyes and sighed. "And I learn it too late."
   Guile cocked his head at the other man. "Yes, you do. Though that you learn it at all is a bit of a surprise to me."
   Jyrr normally would have scowled at Guile’s words, but it just came out as a flinch. "I… don’t suppose you know what is going to happen to me, do you?"
   Guile half shrugged, careful not to disturb Slayd. "My best guess is that when we arrive at the Worm King’s palace, he will send you back to your father with some sort of escort. Beyond that, I don’t care."
   Jyrr said nothing in reply, only shuddered and leaned back in his seat. His eyes fluttered shut with a defeated sigh. Guile could practically feel the exhaustion pressing down on the other man, and it was no surprise to Guile when less than an hour later he heard Jyrr’s breathing soften as he dozed into sleep.
   Guiel studied his face from behind the gauze covering his eyes, and he wondered how he had never taken notice of how young he looked – and was, by their world’s standards. Young and stupid, he thought to himself. And only just now realizing for himself just how dangerous that combination can be.
   The steady rolling of the coach jolted to a sudden halt, and the carriage door was thrown open. "Hurry sirs, we must get away from the road!"
   Guile was on his feet and jostling awake both of his companions in an instant. "What happened, what did you see?"
   "No time, no time!" The coachman ushered his three passengers out of the carriage and off the road, underneath the cover of a grove of dense fir trees. Guile found a nearby rock and crouched beside it, one arm curled around Slayd and his other hand gripping Jyrr tight by his wrist. The coachman ducked beside him, and Slayd hissed in his ear, annoyed with the sudden awakening. "What is going on?"
   The small man shook his head, bespectacled eyes shiny with fear. "Shadows upon the crags, young master," he whispered, "Shadows upon the crags and fear in the air. Can you not feel it?"
   Slayd turned his gaze up through the thick branches of the trees, seeing nothing but mist. He frowned, unsure. But then a tell-tale shiver ran up the back of his neck, and a keening whine cracked thinly through the air. He could feel Guile shudder next to him, and glancing up he saw a strange expression flicker over Guile’s face, half obscured as it was by his blindfold. It could have been fear, sorrow, or yearning, or maybe all three at once, but it lasted for only a moment.
   The coachman gasped beside them. "The bulls – I must loose them, or they will surely be -" But he didn’t finish his sentence. He had bolted from the marginal shelter of the fir grove and ran down to the road before any of his former passengers could stop him.
   Slayd glanced over at Guile, who shook his head. "He is as good as dead."
   The faint whine built to a frenzied shriek, and Slayd watched in fascination as the coachman reached his bulls only to be suddenly surrounded with the blackest shadow Slayd had ever seen. It descended from the thick mist above them, a flurry of shredded feathers and jagged edges coming down to catch up the hapless man. His beasts of burden were caught in wicked claws – or were they teeth? – and rent their bodies unrecognizable in a spray of blood.
   Guile grasped the hands of both his companions and dragged them back, deeper into the fir grove. "Now is as good a time as any to slip away, and quickly," he hissed, pulling them along with urgent determination. "Now is not the time to confront one of my brethren."
   But they had not escaped notice. The heaving mass of feathers and bone screamed in anger upon discovering it had missed its intended target once again, and shadows seemed to pour from its strangely twisted body. It turned, four bulbous eyes curling about the amorphous mass to fasten their curdling gaze on the three men. It froze for a moment, and beneath feathers and mottled skin Slayd could see veins pulsing past open sores and blisters. Slayd heard Jyrr crumple to the ground next to him, and he felt like he needed to vomit. Those vile eyes fixed their stare upon Guile, and the creature hissed broken words in a language that made Slayd’s head throb before it lunged through the trees with lightning speed.
   "Run!" was all he heard from Guile, but Slayd’s feet felt like lead and his vision blurred. He struggled to move, but his own body seemed to betray him. He could feel the heat of sour breath rush by him, and with great effort he turned his head to see the demon cast hooked tendrils of flesh at his guardian, shrieking in heated rage. The claws (teeth?) buried themselves in the dirt, missing their target by mere inches as Guile twisted in the air on his one good wing to land in front of Slayd, shielding him with an outstretched arm. "Run, Slayd!"
   But he couldn’t move. No matter how hard he tried, all he could do was stare up at the horror in front of him.
   And then the ground began to shake. It trembled violently beneath their feet before the earth shattered open with a guttural groan, showering everything in an avalanche of dirt and stone. The massive head of something monstrous broke through, gaping with a maw that split open like the petals of a disgusting flower. With a long snaking neck it propelled itself towards the Grigora, a moan deeper than the roots of mountains emanating within. The demon screamed and took to the air, twisting in on itself as it vanished into the fog. As abruptly as it had burst from the ground, the head of the gigantic worm turned its mouth toward the three men, its many jaws opened wide.
   Suddenly finding his feet, Slayd prepared to flee. But Guile grabbed Slayd about the waist and scooped Jyrr up in his free arm. "Trust me Slayd -" And he leapt into the monstrous jaws.


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