Chapter 46: The Gallery.
It was the smell that first hit Slayd, though that might have been because in the pitch black darkness of the worm’s maw there wasn’t much else to orient yourself by. He clapped a hand over his mouth, dizzy from the acrid stench wafting from the back of the monster’s throat. He felt Guile’s long fingers gripping his waist tightly, and his guardian’s raspy voice met his ears. “The avatar of the Worm King sees all, wherever it travels. No harm will come to us here.”
Their footing slipped as the worm lurched, and Slayd’s heart leapt to his throat as the creature descended with sudden speed, undoubtedly diving back into the ground to escape the demon. Slayd reached a hand up to grasp at Guile’s chest, only to find another already clutching him. Slayd curled his fingers tight around Jyrr’s hand and held on, the feeling of freefall disorienting him even further. But Guile held him close as their unlikely savior continued its descent into the earth.
The heavy rumble of scraping rock coming from outside the monstrous beast drowned out any questions Slayd might have wanted to ask if he had been able. It was only when the worm leveled out again that it slowed, and the overpowering noise of the worm tunneling through bedrock lowered to a dull roar. “How far down do you think it went?”
Slayd could feel Guile shrug, even as he shoved Jyrr away from him. “Hundreds of meters, I imagine. Another of my brothers pursued the first, if you saw the shadows in the air. But we will not be followed, not into the earth.”
Jyrr squirmed on their slick footing, audibly attempting to keep from retching at the stench. “A – and where is this thing taking us?”
“To the Worm King’s palace, I assume.” Guile slid backwards until he could brace himself against the hard lining of the creature’s jaw, pulling Slayd with him. “We will know when we get there.”
Jyrr grunted into the dark. “You seem rather sure it’s not going to swallow us whole.”
Guile snorted and Slayd could almost feel him roll his eyes. “This being is an extension of the Worm King himself, Jyrr. It is unthinkable.”
Slayd peered around as they argued, his mouth dropping open as his eyes adjusted to the darkness around them. Tiny spots of yellow-green light twinkled in lines across the creature’s mouth – not enough to see by, but certainly enough to spark curiosity. He slid from his place at Guile’s side and crouched beside a smattering of the glowing specks.
Bioluminescence. Slayd’s eyebrows shot up and he glanced at the roof of the worm’s mouth, noting more tiny points of light. The Baron von Leuchtkäfer? The coachman had mentioned his name, but I had not imagined he would have lent himself or his power to this extent. What a romance that must be…
The rumbling outside had ceased, and the slick sound of opening jaws distracted Slayd from his thoughts. He heard Guile stretch and crack his knuckles. “Shall we take our leave?”
Slayd peered ahead of them, squinting into an even blacker darkness than the one inside the worm. Being so deep below the surface as they were, this place had to be a cavern, but the air smelled fresh and cool. Slayd muttered an affirmative and groped for Guile’s hand. Though he couldn’t see Guile catch a hold of Jyrr’s arm he could hear the squeal from the other man as he did so, and the three of them jumped from the worm’s gaping mouth and into the cave.
The cool air chilled their damp skin and Slayd pulled at his vest, trying to will the fabric to stop sticking to him. The darkness around them was nearly palpable, isolating Slayd's senses and making him feel very much alone. Even the grip from Guile's hand seemed far away, and when his guardian spoke again it made Slayd jump.
“Our presence must have spooked them.”
Slayd frowned, though no one could see it. “Who, now?”
And as in in response to Guile's words, tiny pinpoints of light winked into existence, one by soundless one. Millions upon millions of them, lining the walls and ceiling of an immense black cave. They barely illuminated the vast darkness that stretched before them, but as they slowly lit the caverns they revealed contours and boundaries in the rock. Slayd took a step back in astonishment. Massive dark shapes loomed silent in the voids between the glowworms' lights all around them, forming queer distortions of living forms. Yet they did not move, nor breathe.
Slayd barely remembered this place from long ago in his youth, but there was a dim memory in the back of his mind that told him this was a safe place, and these shapes were benign. He reached out a groping hand with great caution, touching the nearest dark form. Stone.
Slayd's uneasy question remained unspoken, but Guile always seemed to know what he was asking. His guardian shrugged, grip tight on Jyrr's arm as the other man cowered behind him, staring up at the dark shapes. Guile's new eyes behind their gauze could see much more than either of his companions' limited vision. He took in dripping stalactites and huge grooved columns, strange formations rising up from the floor and descending down from the ceiling so far above them. Some of them were indeed twisted into shapes reminiscent of living, breathing beings. “From what I recall, the Worm King is an artist, and he works with the slow forces of dripping water and sedimentary buildup.” Guile placed his own hand next to Slayd's on the stone. “Instead of simply a cavern, we are passing through a gallery.”
Slayd murmured a slow agreement. “It has been so long since I have set foot here.”
Guile nodded, his movement now dimly visible in the soft blue glow. Slayd’s eyes traveled from his Guardian’s silhouette to the millions of tiny insects lending the light of their sticky threads to the caverns, and he smiled. “So the Baron does indeed lend his domain to the Worm King. Such a romance it must be.”
Guile merely shrugged again. “So I hear. I pay little attention to gossip. Though I would not touch the places where the glowworms have made their nests. Their threads are sticky, and designed to catch prey. They may be small but they are always hungry.” He sniffed the air and turned to their right. “My eyes see marker stones leading the way. Shall we follow them, my lord?”
Slayd removed his hand from the stone in haste. “Lead me on.”
Further and further into the cavern they went, their path turning and twisting along the rough floor, sometimes going between black looming pillars so tall Slayd wondered how the Worm King had ever carved them, sometimes venturing close to precipices that bordered a yawning darkness so deep even Guile’s eyes could not see the bottom of it. The echoes of their footsteps were accompanied only by the faint sound of dripping water and the puff of their breath. The air was colder down here, making Slayd wish his clothes included a shirt more substantial than the open vest he wore.
He shivered, and pulled on Guile's arm. “How much farther must we wander here before we reach the Worm King? I do not recall meandering for so long in his gallery before.”
Guile shook his arm from Slayd's grip. “I know as much as you do, my Lord. It has been long since I have set foot in these caverns as well.”
“I don't like your tone, Guile.” Slayd narrowed his eyes at his guardian, and even in the dim light he saw Guile flinch.
“I'm tired, Slayd. I have much on my mind.”
Guile shook his head, but the gesture was only barely visible in the darkness. “Nothing that need trouble you. It has been a very long time since I have seen Carn, and... I suppose it... hurt... to see him in such a state.”
Slayd arched a thin eyebrow. “Carn?”
“Carnage. My brother. The one who drove us underground.”
“I see.” Slayd pursed his lips. “Were you close?”
“Were. Yes. No longer.”
But Guile said nothing else, simply turned and continued to follow the rough-hewn path through the gallery's columns of stone.
Slayd hurried after him, changing the subject. “Once we get there, I think I need a change of clothes and a long bath. I know we're in a hurry but I'm tired and filthy and I cannot stand the thought of continuing on without at least some measure of comfort.”
“As you wish.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
The dim light from the glowworms' threads was barely enough to show Jyrr an alternate route through the dripping forms of stone. He had taken the first opportunity he had seen to slip away from his captors when Guile had been momentarily distracted, and now he groped along the floor of the gallery with as much haste as he would allow himself. He dreaded the thought of stumbling over the edge of an unexpected chasm, or haphazardly being swept away into a swift-moving underground stream. He kept a close eye on the voids that formed from absences of the glowworms' lights, for if there were places they did not anchor themselves, surely there was a reason.
And yet he kept his pace as quick as he dared. If he could find his way out of this cavern, he could head for the northern river. It was the border of the Locust Kingdom, surely, but if he crossed the river and continued northwest, he would find the steep and craggy cliffs where the kingdom met the sea. Few people ever ventured that far, and he was certain he wouldn't be detected. Perhaps he could send word to some of those who remained loyal to him in the Maggot Kingdom, and he could salvage at least safety from this whole fiasco, if he couldn't have triumph.
But there still remained the problem of finding a way through this maze of rock and blackness. He had been trying to follow the floor of the cavern where he could feel it it slope steadily upwards, but the last corner he had turned had put him in a position that anywhere he turned he was going downhill again. He clicked his tongue in frustration, but clapped a hand over his mouth the moment the sound came out. It echoed loudly in the hushed quiet of the cavern, and for a long minute he imagined he heard rapid footsteps advancing on his position. But it was just the soft and steady drip drip drip of water on stone, and he allowed himself to breathe again. He had no choice but to move on, so he picked a direction where the air seemed warmer and crept on, deeper into the massive winding corridors of the cave.
“How could you just let him get away, again?”
Guile leaned against one of the columns, the flat bridge of his nose pinched hard between two fingers. “I did not let him get away, but if it eases your mind there are not very many places he can escape. There are few entrances to these caverns and all of them are guarded. He is more likely to fall off a cliff's edge and break his neck than find a way out of here unassisted.”
“No, you need to find him.”
Guile nodded, his brow furrowing even further over his fingers. “Yes, I know. I'll go look for him, but please stay here. I will know how to find you if you remain in one place but if you wander off as well, I cannot promise these caverns will be very accommodating. They are relatively safe but these stone walls care nothing of whether you are hopelessly lost within them.”
Slayd nodded, but Guile didn't need to see it to know he'd listen, at least this time. Without another word Guile set off into the dark halls of the gallery, trusting his fathomless eyes to track his prey.
He was going in circles. He had to be going in circles. Jyrr's fingers ran over a deep groove in the wall at about head-height, feeling for the pebble he shoved inside the last time he thought he'd gone this way.
There it is. I'm definitely going in circles. He shoved another pebble in the groove just to be sure, and pressed on. He turned the corner, feeling the floor slope upwards just a fraction beneath his feet, and took a slow deep breath. “I can do this,” he whispered to himself, more in need of audible encouragement at the moment than the need for cautious quiet. “I can do this, it is a simple thing to follow a path. All paths lead somewhere...”
But another twenty minutes later, and he found his fingers tracing the edges of the same deep groove in the wall, finding the two pebbles he had lodged in the crevice earlier. His breath was coming in short heaves now, panic beginning to set in. “I cannot have come this way again, I followed a different direction – there must be another -”
He made an abrupt turn to the left and hastened ahead, hands thrust out ahead of him to grope his way forward. He stumbled against loose rock, scraping his palms and shouldering by columns and boulders he only half-sensed. The glowworms around him began to wink out, startled by the sudden movement and noise, leaving Jyrr in total darkness.
“No – I cannot see! – someone hel-”
His foot hit a loose stone and he stumbled, pitching to one side. But there was no ground there to break his fall. Only a long drop and a steep slope, slipping away into the depths of the dark.