Chapter 47: The Worm King.
Guile's eyes were made for darkness such as this, and he moved with surety and swiftness through the branching corridors of the Worm King's gallery. The light from the glowworms' sticky threads aided him but a little as he made his way from cavern to cavern, needing only the barest of illumination to help him follow the faint traces left by Jyrr's feet on the smooth stone of the floor. He could tell the other man was wandering lost and blind, from the way the tracks would turn back on themselves and sometimes curve in circles. “And yet he makes good time, getting lost,” he said to himself, “It's been over half an hour and I still have not caught up to him.”
He paused to listen to the stillness, hoping to hear the tell-tale sounds of Jyrr's feet on rock. But the muted sounds of the cavern told him nothing other than the steady drip drip drip of water passing through miniscule cracks in stone. The soft breath of cool air wafting across his face told him there was a deep crevice somewhere nearby. In these caverns there were steep fissures that sloped down into the depths of the earth, and the only thing anyone knew of them was that they met their end in icy waters, far below. Part of him hoped Jyrr had experienced an unlucky encounter with the edge of one such fissure, although he knew he wouldn't hear the end of it if he didn't bring the idiot troublemaker back alive and whole.
“Speak of the devil, I suppose...” He heard the faint and faraway sounds of distress that could only be a cry for help and he quickened his pace, knowing it must be Jyrr.
The panicked cry had been cut off by Jyrr's sudden fall, and again by his sudden stop. The crevice that Jyrr had fallen into was narrow and steep, nearly a vertical drop. But he found his descent arrested shortly after it had begun, halted by the abrupt catch of a dense mat of sticky threads. He hung suspended in the dark, and he froze in place for fear of accidentally dislodging himself and resuming his fall down into what could only be interminable blackness and cold. It reminded him far too much of the Spider Kingdom.
Slowly the threads holding him fast began to glow, and Jyrr could see just enough to notice at the end of each thread were the pointed and toothy faces of the glowworms who made them. They advanced along their strings, creeping closer inch by inch to the warmth they sensed from Jyrr's body.
“Oh dear, they will – Someone help! Anyone! - Slayd – Guile -”
He didn't dare struggle, for he could still feel the icy air wafting up from far beneath him, threatening a death more fearsome and unknown if he were to try and free himself from the glowworms' snare. “Someone... help...”
A shuffling of feet and hands along stone just over the edge of the crevice caught Jyrr's attention, and he craned his neck to see if he could spot someone coming to his rescue. “Guile...?”
A hand shot out over the edge of the precipice, catching Jyrr by the collar of his shirt and yanking him hard back up towards the cavern path he had slipped from. He was thrown to the opposite end of the corridor in one swift motion, slamming hard into the stone. He stuck fast, caught in the threads of more of the glowworms' snares.
“Who is Guile?” Cackling laughter assaulted his ears, and Jyrr froze when the blue glow of a light spell flared to life, revealing two forms standing before him. Both were nearly identical, each with thin slits for mouths and four massive eyes blinking down at Jyrr.
The one who had spoken leaned forward mere inches from Jyrr's face, leering from an open mouth. “My name is Cydistus, not Guile. And who are you? We were not aware of any trespassers on our fathers' lands.” He tilted his head towards the other man, who merely cackled again. That one had a mad gleam in all four of his eyes.
“Unwelcome visitors are not treated kindly here, stranger,” The one who identified himself as Cydistus stroked Jyrr's short hair before gripping it tightly and yanking Jyrr's head straight back. “And it sounds like my dear brother Zarh is hungry.”
Jyrr tried in vain to hold back a whimper. “M-my name is Jyrr, and I am a companion of the H-Heir of Moroloth, who I am sure you know is on his way to see your f-father, if children of the Worm King y-you are.”
Cydistus raised a slender eyebrow, and Jyrr could see his massive pupils shrink to nearly nothing. “If that is true, why are you so far from your friends, hm?”
Jyrr flinched, equally from his damning words and from the unsettling stare. “I – I became disoriented in the dark, and lost my way. It is so very dark here after all, and -”
“Lies.” His pupils dilated wide again, and he grinned. “Shall we encourage him to tell the truth, Zarh?”
The other man matched his twin's smile and cackled once more, grabbing Jyrr by one of his wrists and yanking him partly out of the glowworms' threads. His mouth opened wider than Jyrr thought was physically possible, and Jyrr struggled in his hold. “No please, you do not understand, I -”
“Then enlighten us.”
Zarh's vice grip slackened at the sound of his twin's voice, and Jyrr recoiled from him only to entangle himself again in the sticky threads. “You are mistaken, if you would only ask Lord Slayd I-”
Zarh's laughter cut him off, and Cydistus merely shrugged. “Oh but he's not here, now is he? Pity that is, I imagine.” His pupils again shrank to mere pinpricks, and he leaned in close to Jyrr, a thin string of faintly luminescent drool sliding from one corner of his mouth. “You should have been more careful about getting lost.”
Jyrr cowered as Cydistus dispelled his orb of light and the glowworms around him winked out, shrieking when he felt the grip of four clawed hands on his skin. He struggled in their hold, but between the two men and the glowworms' threads, he was trapped.
“As entertaining as this would be to watch, I am afraid he is actually correct.” Guile's raspy voice in the dark actually sounded like a relief to Jyrr's ears. “He is indeed a companion of Lord Slayd, and he would be most put out if you disposed of him without his explicit permission.”
Another light spell flared to life, and both Cydistus and Zarh pulled away from Jyrr to study this new visitor. “And who would you be then?”
“My name is Guile. You are too young to know me, but I am the guardian and guide of Lord Slayd. He awaits my return with our errant companion here.” He gestured to Jyrr, but made no move to release him from the sticky snare. “And once I return to him, we shall resume making our way to the gateway of your fathers' palace. We are expected, surely you are aware. If you doubt me, then simply follow.”
Neither Cydistus nor Zarh said a word for a long moment, seeming to communicate with each other with nothing but a look. But Cydistus finally shrugged and stepped back. “We will take you to the gateway. I don't know who or what you are, but I sense strange and dark magic from -”
“Then it would be wise for you not to ask further questions. Lord Slayd barely manages to keep me in check, and it would be a pity if you died upon your own doorstep.” The maw in Guile's stomach grinned wide, matching the snarl on Guile's lips.
Cydistus snapped his mouth shut and brushed by Guile with haste, grabbing his brother by the hand as he passed and kept him close. “Where is the Heir awaiting you?”
Slayd paced the short distance between two looming sculptures once again, flicking his wrist with an angry twitch in another vain attempt at producing a magical flare of light. He knew he still had magic coursing through his veins, he knew he was capable of so much more than just a simple light spell, but not even a spark could be coaxed from his fingers. “I don't understand, why did I not receive my magic back along with my appearance? What am I doing wrong?”
He turned on his heel and paced in the returning direction, dimly aware if he kept it up he'd be wearing a groove into the floor. But it had been over half an hour since Guile had left in pursuit of Jyrr, and Slayd had little else to do in the pitch-black cavern while he awaited their return. He muttered old runes under his breath to try and focus, and flicked his wrist again.
Light sprang into being, suddenly revealing the stark shadows and looming figures of the statues in the gallery. But the light was not from Slayd, and he whipped around to face the direction the light had come from, shielding his eyes from the bright green glow.
A short thin man wearing a double pair of spectacles was standing a few feet away, one hand held aloft to contain the light spell he had summoned. “My Lord Slayd, yourself has not changed a minute since we last met. It has been so long since yourself has been here, I'm thinking there are a great many more works of art in the gallery than when yourself had last visited.”
Slayd relaxed and shook his head. “You have no idea how much things have changed.” He looked the other man up and down, and smiled. “It's been far too long, Baron von Leuchtkäfer. You've grown up. And I hear you have gained the Worm King's affections.”
The Baron flushed pink at Slayd's words and adjusted his glasses. “I – I'm thinking that yourself has had a harrowing journey to arrive on our doorstep. Spargan's second self told us your coach was attacked and your escort killed.”
Slayd nodded. “If it weren't for my guardian's quick thinking, I'm sure we would also have been killed. A Grigora fell upon us from the sky.”
A visible shiver ran up the Baron's spine. “A harrowing journey indeed, my Lord. I have heard some reports and rumors involving your return, but I would love to hear from yourself what has happened. You have already done so much, and our Lord the Lich King has finally been reawakened. I'm believing all of Dehalen awaits whatever will happen next.”
Slayd nodded, the memory of it all making him weary just thinking about it. “There is not as much to tell as you would imagine, and most of it isn't important. My guardian Guile did his duty and brought me back from the cusp of death beyond the Veil. I have resurrected my master, yes, but there still much I must do, Baron. And you also await his will. Are you ready to do whatever your overlord requests of you?”
The Baron nodded, adjusting his glasses once again as the pupils in his lower eyes dilated wide. “Both Spargan and myself are ready to answer his call, and to whatever duty that will lead us.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Slayd rubbed the side of his forehead, beginning to feel a headache coming on.
“Feeling alright, my lord?”
Slayd shook it off and smiled. “I'm just tired.”
The Baron nodded. “You will have rest at the palace. Would you come with myself?”
“I'm waiting for Guile to return with our other... companion, though he's been more of a thorn in my side than anything. I'm certain you would remember my guardian Guile. Do you remember Jyrr?”
In the light of the Baron's spell, Slayd could see the barest curl of a lip on the other man's face. “I'm remembering them both, my Lord. And from the sound of it, they are returning with my sons.”
Indeed, Slayd could here the soft footfalls of four people approaching from the far end of the winding gallery, and it was mere moments before they entered the circle of light cast by the Baron's spell. Guile had Jyrr's arm in a grip so tight Slayd could see bruises forming underneath his fingers already, although from the look on Jyrr's face he seemed far more relieved to be in Guile's care than the two nearly-identical men trailing behind him.
“Ah Lord Slayd, I'm happy to introduce yourself to my sons,” The Baron came up beside Slayd and motioned for the twins to approach. “These are my boys, Cydistus and Zarh.” He clapped each of them on the shoulder and turned them to face Slayd.
Both men bowed low to Slayd, the pupils of their eyes shrinking to practically nothing as they stared. One began to cackle but was quickly silenced by a jab to the ribs from the other, who spoke over his twin. “We are honored, my Lord. Please forgive us, we doubted your companion and your guardian's word about who they were.”
Slayd shrugged it off. “I'm sure Guile is used to it. He doesn't really look like the trustworthy sort. As for Jyrr, he is less of a companion and more of a burden, at this point.” He turned back to the Baron. “Would you lead us to your palace? I am eager to see the Worm King. We cannot stay long, but it has been so many years, and I have some things I need to discuss with him. And I am in dire need of a decent bath.”
“Of course.” The Baron flourished the hand holding the orb of light, transforming it into a brightly glowing staff. “Allow myself to lead the way. Cyd, Zarh – I am thinking it is best if yourselves notified Spargan that the Heir of Moroloth is in the company of myself.”
Without a word the twins sprinted ahead into the dark, leaving the Baron to accompany his guests. Slayd chuckled at their leave. “They take after you a little more than the Worm King, I believe.”
The Baron pushed his glasses up again over the bridge of his nose and began to walk in the same direction that his sons had vanished. “I-I suppose.”
Slayd could have laughed at seeing his ears turn pink, but he changed the subject to avoid embarrassing the man even further. “There will be many things I must prepare for at Amoth Shyr, and I cannot waste much time in getting there. I will need you to direct me to the best port that borders this kingdom, and perhaps arrange for a ship to take us across the sea. It is faster than following the shoreline north and back through the Locust and Spider Kingdoms.”
The Baron regarded Slayd with a blank stare before he cast his eyes down to the floor, which was growing more marbled and less stony as they progressed through the last hall of the gallery. “This yourself should speak to Spargan about. There is something yourselves should know before venturing towards the sea, and it is not my place to say.” A dark look shadowed his normally bright face, and Slayd couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at him. But he said nothing more, as the hall was coming to an end. The green light from the Baron's staff illuminated a massive wooden door, bolted with steel and inlaid with hundreds of faceted sapphires. The Baron spoke the spidery words of magic, and the doors swung open on silent hinges. Slayd couldn't help but feel another pang of jealousy at the easy ability, but they were quick to be ushered through the doorway and once he entered the main hall of the Worm King's palace, he forgot his momentary envy.
The cavern they found themselves in was vaulted in high ceilings nearly twenty meters high, and glittered with emerald along the rafters and the walls. Slender pillars carved to resemble the twisted roots of trees and vines supported the sprawling open spaces, and the far end of the cavern opened out into the fresh air of the mountainside. The grey haze of an early dusk greeted Slayd's eyes, and it took him a moment to realize that they were hundreds of feet above the valley floor. The cavern opened up on the side of a nearly-vertical cliff, offering a sprawling view of the forested and fern-covered ravines below. Slayd could only barely make out the leveling of the valley floor, and far beyond he could see a glimpse of dunes. And though he could not see them, he knew beyond those dunes lay sawgrass and sandy shores, and the rolling waves of the sea.
But that was nowhere near where he was standing now, and he tore his gaze from the view to focus on the man who was approaching him, with the Baron already by his side.
He was a giant among men, easily taller than Oedaleus and sporting a bulk over twice that of the Maggot King. He seated himself on the floor in front of Slayd and crossed his legs, bowing as low as his girth would allow.
“My Lord Slayd, it has been too long! I felt with my Second Self your presence when you entered the realm of the Beetle King, but it is far better to see your face with my own eyes. Please, won't you and your companions stay awhile and eat with us?”
As he was speaking, the Baron had rolled a low table between the two, laden with food and drink. Slayd smiled and sat down on the floor, beckoning for Guile and Jyrr to do the same. “Thank you, King of Worms. But we will not stay long. I must reach Amoth Shyr as soon as possible, so after some rest I will leave and head for the shore. The sea is the fastest way, though the most dangerous. And judging from Baron von Leuchtkäfer's words, there is something else amiss.”
A shadow passed over the Worm King's bright eyes, and he shook his head slowly. “The sea itself is what is amiss. It is rough and dangerous on the best of days, but this past month it is covered in unnatural fog, and the waves are so choppy few vessels venture out. Those that do have not returned. The few remaining at port just beyond my borders are moored indefinitely and refuse to go out to sea. Even the lighthouse cannot ease the sailors' fears, though it still functions.” His voice dropped low, and Slayd saw a shudder creep up the massive man's spine. “There are few who still take their fishing vessels out into the waves, and what they see makes my very blood run cold. The shadows run long and linger over the shore. They say they have seen Grigora slipping among the clouds.”
Slayd raised an eyebrow and glanced sidelong at Guile, but spoke only to the Worm King. “And how long has it been since this has started?”
“One month, perhaps two. From my limited knowledge of the Beetle Kingdom, I believe it was possibly mere days from the time the Lich King was revived.”
Slayd nodded slowly, his face creased in a frown. “Which would mean that they sensed his presence re-enter this world. That is... troubling, to say the least. And combine that knowledge with the destruction of my chariot, I'm beginning to think that even greater urgency is needed. I must cross the sea.”
The Worm King inclined his head in agreement. “Please rest here as long as you need. If you wish to set sail it will be difficult to find a ship coming into port, but the Keepers of the Lighthouse would know. I suggest making for that landmark first, though you know as well as I that anything past the dunes is beyond my realm, and the denizens of the shoreline have rarely been known to be friendly towards any who associate themselves with the Lich King. Dangerous ground for you, my Lord.”
Slayd shrugged. “I have my guardian. I trust his competence. But I cannot be slowed down by any access baggage. Send for someone to fetch him,” - and here he tossed a hand in Jyrr's direction, “and take him back to the Maggot Kingdom. Preferably someone extremely capable. He has a habit of escaping.”
The Worm King glanced over at Jyrr, who sunk low in his spot on the floor, staring studiously at his plate.
The Baron tapped a palm against his lover's thigh. “Spargan, if I am recalling correctly, the Huntsman has been lurking about our valleys, and no doubt himself will be drawn even nearer because of the demon who attacked Lord Slayd's chariot. I know he has been a terror to our lands but he does hold fealty to the Spider Queen. Shall we seek himself out and beg his assistance? I know himself would do so in the name of Moroloth's Heir.”
Jyrr jerked his head up, and his eyes went huge and round at the name. “He would do nothing but tear me limb from limb and present the pieces to his queen! I - ”
“You have no say, Jyrr,” Slayd snapped. “You forfeited any privilege when you invaded the Beetle Kingdom. The whole world knows by now of your treachery. Even the Huntsman would be glad to return you to your father.”
He turned back to the Worm King. “Send word for him.”
Spargan inclined his head and smiled at the Baron. “Might you do the honor, love?”
The Baron returned his smile and left the room. The Worm King's eyes followed him out, and he beamed down at Slayd. “I suspect it may be before another dawn that we see him, should he accept. We can keep Jyrr here for you in the meantime, if you wish to depart earlier.”
Slayd shook his head, eyes meeting Guile's blindfolded gaze. “No, Jyrr has made a habit of slipping out from underneath other's noses. Guile has a... way with him. Jyrr will go with the Huntsman, and that will be when we will take our leave.”
“As you wish, my Lord.”
The rest of their meal was spent in relative silence. After they had eaten their fill the Worm King escorted them to a long corridor adjacent to the main hall immediately after, taking them to a cluster of several doors.
“My home is your home, you are welcome to make use of any rooms to rest and recover your strength. I will notify you when the Huntsman arrives. Until then, rest well, Savior's Heir.” He bowed and took his leave.