Chapter 48: Approaching the Sea.

  Slayd yawned and stretched before ducking through one of the doorways that would lead to a bath, a bed, and much-needed sleep. The carriage ride hadn't been entirely restful, and it felt like it had been years since he had slept well. Almost as an afterthought he took a step back and smiled over his shoulder at Guile, still in the corridor with Jyrr. “Keep him company while I rest, would you? I'm sure you don't mind.”
   Guile grinned back at Slayd as he left before he turned his attention to Jyrr. He hauled the other man into another of the rooms and dumped him unceremoniously on the bed, ignoring Jyrr's flinches of pain from his still-unhealed wounds.
   “From what I know of the Huntsman, you should get used to hurting, Jyrr. You should know nearly as well as I do that he is not entirely pleasant.”
   Jyrr cringed from where he lay, and rolled over to curl up on his side less injured. “I do.”
   His voice was small and miserable, and Guile couldn't decide if it made him want to taunt him further or just slap him, so he did neither. Instead he just shrugged and laid down next to Jyrr, threading his fingers behind his head and staring up at the ceiling with his gauzed eyes. “A small piece of advice... keep silent unless he desires you to speak. He is not fond of chatter.”
   Guile could feel the motion of Jyrr's head nodding. “I have only encountered him once before, and he was not fond of me then. I can imagine nothing has changed. I will not make it to my father's palace alive.”
   Guile snorted back a laugh. “You underestimate the Huntsman's capability. He is unlike me, in that he actually has control over his temper. You will make it home alive, and likely in one piece.”
   “That isn't very reassuring...” Jyrr shifted his position in an attempt to favor one injury over another. “I have only felt his aura the once, but I hear that he can crush bones with merely the weight of that aura.”
   Guile nodded in the dark. “That is true, but you are forgetting that the Huntsman has copious amounts of both self-control and patience when he desires, which you and I both seem to lack.”
   “I... suppose so.” Jyrr curled up tighter around himself, stifling a shudder. “I may have done far better facing your brethren, in the wilds of the ravines.”
   Guile scowled and slipped one hand out from behind his head to tap Jyrr's temple. “If you even think about running again I will not hesitate to consume you, and leave you inside me until we touch foot on Amoth Shyr's steps.”
   Jyrr shook his head. “I won't. Nor can I. There is nowhere left for me to go.”
   Guile rolled to the side and slipped an arm over Jyrr, lacing his fingers through one of Jyrr's hands. Jyrr froze and caught his breath, and Guile grinned into Jyrr's shoulder when he felt Jyrr's heart race against his chest. “Yet you still make a habit of running. I intend to break that habit.”
   He got a tiny whimper from Jyrr, and Guile could feel his body tense in anticipation of whatever he imagined Guile was intending on doing, but Guile did nothing other than widen his grin and settle in behind the other man. “Go to sleep, Jyrr.”
   It was long before morning when Slayd received a tap on his door, jolting him from pleasant dreams and making him snarl at the offending sound. He threw a pillow in the general direction of the disturbance but he sighed and hauled himself out of bed, muttering to the noise. “Yes, yes, I hear you.” He threw on some clothes before shoving open the door. “What is it? It can't possibly be dawn yet.”
   The Baron stood mid-knock, looking a little frazzled. “It is merely a few hours past midnight. And normally I would not be bothering yourself at such an hour, but the Huntsman has arrived already.” He took a deep breath, and Slayd noticed that he was physically trying to steady himself against the door frame. “It seems that once he heard it was yourself he would be doing a favor for, he came right away. I am thinking he only killed two of our messengers in the process, so I am assuming we have caught himself on a good day.”
   “Or night,” Slayd grumbled. “Where is he?”
   “In the balcony hall, awaiting your direction.” The Baron looked relieved that Slayd was going to handle this affair, and he stepped aside to get out of Slayd's way.
   Slayd muttered something unintelligible before he shuffled over to the adjacent door, throwing it open without preamble. “Guile! We're sending Jyrr off now, apparently. Get him to the balcony hall, will you? I'll meet you there.”
   Slayd shut the door without bothering to wait for a response and made his way through the corridor that connected to the main hall, stopping to squint at the Baron. “Food. I'm hungry. Can you manage something this early?”
   The Baron gave Slayd a warm - if shaky – smile, and nodded. “I'll arrange for a meal before you set off. Is there anything else I can do for yourself?”
   “No, not really. Thank you. I'll be with the Huntsman.” He pushed open the wooden door to the balcony hall and promptly closed it behind him, leaving the Baron to breathe a sigh of relief.
   When Slayd had given the news to Guile and Jyrr neither one was terribly conscious, but at the sound of the Huntman's name Jyrr sat bolt upright in bed. He broke into a cold sweat at Slayd's words, but it wasn't until he had shut the door behind him did Jyrr try to get up. “Oh dear. I have to -”
   A clawed hand shot out from the other side of the bed to grip Jyrr's wrist. “You have to what?”
   Jyrr flinched. “N-nothing.” All he could do was sigh in defeat. “Nothing...”
   Guile released his wrist and sat up next to him, stretching his one wing. “Good boy. Now let's get you out of the way. For good, this time. Or at least one can hope.” He stood and offered a hand to Jyrr.
   “I don't suppose you can be bribed,” Jyrr took his hand with shaking fingers. “You never have before.”
   “Afraid not, Jyrr. There is nothing you could give me that I want, aside from this satisfaction.” Guile tugged him along through the door and down the corridor, the grin slowly widening on his face as they neared the wooden doors to the balcony hall.
   Guile was glad he had such a firm grasp on Jyrr's hand as they entered the hall, because as soon as they crossed the threshold Jyrr blanched and struggled, trying to pull free from Guile's grip at the same time he clutched at his chest. “Please, Guile, I cannot go with him, he -”
   Guile just wrenched Jyrr off of him and dragged him by the wrist to the end of the hall, where a tall and musclebound man in spiked armor stood waiting. His back was to the inner cavern as he gazed out on the sloping valley below, with Slayd by his side looking totally unconcerned. The air in the hall felt heavy and cloistered, even though a chill breeze blew through the wide opening in the cliff. As Guile approached with Jyrr in tow the heaviness around him pressed closely down, squeezing the air from his lungs and making him gasp against the pressure. Moving forward became more difficult with each step.
   As the man turned to regard the new arrivals, Guile gritted his teeth under his gaze, and Jyrr collapsed to his knees under the weight of the unnatural pressure. The man was covered from head to toe in heavy plate armor and he wore a death's head helmet over his face, exposing only a thin line of throat and tattooed lips and jaw. He smiled down at them, exposing narrow fangs. “Guardian. It has been a while. So glad to see you are... well.”
   Guile bared his teeth up at the man in a facsimile of a smile. “Always a pleasure, Cebrenn. But I would appreciate it if you were more conscious of your aura.”
   Suddenly the air around them didn't seem nearly so heavy, and Guile could take a deep unrestricted breath. Jyrr stayed on the ground, but Guile could hear him gasp audibly at the relief. The inked smile on the Huntsman's face grew a sliver, showing off a second set of pointed teeth. “My apologies.”
   Guile merely grunted and hauled Jyrr to his feet, shoving him forward with enough force that he stumbled right into the Huntsman. He caught him by the throat in one hand, cutting off a startled squawk from Jyrr. “This is my charge, I assume?”
   Jyrr's face had grown ashen, and he couldn't even must a whimper let alone attempt to struggle against the grip around his neck.
   Slayd nodded at the Huntsman's words, coming around to stand by Guile's side. “He is. And he will remain whole and harmed no further than he already is unless absolutely necessary. His father shall have the honor of punishing him however he may see fit.”
   “Mm.” The Huntsman nodded once before picking Jyrr up easily in one arm. “Consider it done, my Lord.”
   He leered down once more at Guile and opened his mouth to say something, but seemed to change his mind. Instead he inclined his helmeted head to Guile before turning to the view of the valley below him. “The Prince of Flies will be within the walls of the Maggot King's palace within one week's time. Is that acceptable, my Lord?”
   Slayd shrugged. “That should do.”
   The armored man paused for a moment before turning back to Slayd. “You are aiming for the sea.”
   “I am.” Slayd nodded towards the sweeping view and to the dunes far in the distance. “Time is against me.”
   The Huntsman dropped to one knee so that he could meet Slayd at eye level, or would have, had his helmet not covered his eyes completely. “Surely you have been warned of the danger in the waters. Time will be of no more importance to you if you are drowned at the bottom of the sea. Take the route by land, my Lord. I shall escort you.”
   Guile gritted his teeth at the suggestion and placed a hand on Slayd's shoulder. “We do not need your assistance, Cebrenn -”
   Slayd shook him off, keeping his eyes on the Huntsman. “While I appreciate your offer, I am confident we will cross the sea. I know the routes you take over land are treacherous and carry much risk of their own. I would only slow the both of us down. Thank you, Huntsman.”
   Cebrenn stood, inclining his head once more at both Guile and Slayd. “Then I shall see you both upon the Burning Grounds in due time.” He raised the corner of his lips, showing one set of fangs to Guile. “Guardian. It's a pleasure.” With a terrified Jyrr in his grasp he turned and stepped off the edge of the cliff, vanishing from sight.
   Slayd stepped forward and leaned over the precipice to catch sight of Cebrenn climbing down the rocks of the nearly-vertical cliff face with effortless grace and an uncanny silence.
   “Well that's one more thorn out of my side,” he mumbled before turning to Guile with a smile. “What do you say to finding Leuchtkäfer and inquiring about some breakfast? And then after that we set out immediately.”
   Guile gave him a single nod. “I am eager to leave this place. It seems as though we will have a difficult time finding passage for the next leg of our journey, and I do not wish to waste any more of your time.”
   Their extremely early breakfast was quick and quiet. Neither the Baron nor the Worm King joined them for it, but as soon as they were finished the massive king came into the hall and sat himself down before Slayd.
   Spargan leaned forward and took both of Slayd's hands in one of his massive ones, his wrinkled face crinkling up in a smile. “My Lord, I am grateful that you have passed my way, and I am sure it will not be long before we meet again. I understand that our Overlord Moroloth desires a summoning at Amoth Shyr.”
   Slayd nodded. “He has told me that he will end the terror of the Grigora with finality when he returns to our tower. You will know when your presence is required, I am sure.”
   The Worm King nodded, but the smile faded from his face. “Indeed I shall. And I await such a request with eagerness. But that is in the future, and I worry more for the present. I'm sending you into darkness and dangerous waters, and I fear the risk is too great to merit the saving of time.”
   Slayd raised an eyebrow. “I've already made up my mind. I have said before, this is the fastest way. My other option is venturing north, and that leads eventually through to the Spider Queen's realm. As loyal as the Huntsman is to both Moroloth and myself, his queen is capricious. I have tried her patience too much in recent history, and not even my title and authority are a guarantee that she would abide either my presence or that of my guardian. You know how much she hates him.”
   Spargan cast a glance over at Guile, who steadily stared back at him behind his blindfold. The Worm King quickly broke his gaze and nodded slowly. “...So I am aware. I know I cannot dissuade you from your path, nor can I give you any protection, as the shore is beyond my reach. Go first to the lighthouse, and seek out the Keepers. They will tell you what they know, though be on your guard. I have said before that those dwelling close to the sea have never been strong supporters of the Lich King. Watch your back and your step, my Lord. You tread a dangerous road.”
   “I know. Thank you for your help, Worm King, but we must take our leave. How should we get to the valley below from here?”
   The descent was a long and winding one, following a narrow ridge that switch-backed down the side of the cliff and terminated amidst a rustling sea of ferns. The breeze was chilly but light, the stars shone down through intermittent holes in the clouds, and low fog curled about their feet as they made their way steadily westward.
   Slayd was content to walk in silence, but his guardian's restlessness began to grow more and more apparent as they moved on. He never said anything, but each time Slayd stole a glace over at Guile, he wore a pensive look so focused he appeared as if he were in pain. Even the gauze over his eyes could not hide it. Slayd tried to ignore it for the first hour or two of travel, but as the ferns yielded to grasses he finally spoke up. “What is it?”
   Guile blinked behind his blindfold and cocked his head. “What is what?”
   “You're thinking too much, and about something that bothers you.” Slayd had to admit that the troubled frown creasing his guardian's brow made him worried, although what for he couldn't quite pinpoint.
   Guile slowly shook his head and sighed, both in long-suffering and irritation. “You have too much on your mind to focus on my lacking in the ability to adjust, Slayd.”
   His charge rolled his eyes. “Then simply satisfy my curiosity and move on.” He wondered to himself why Guile was always so reticent about these things, not to mention why such matters bothered Slayd at all. His guardian was right after all, but he couldn't help but seem to fret about it.
   “I'm reticent about them because they are things you don't need to hear, I suppose,” Guile muttered, answering Slayd's unasked question. “And it probably bothers you because as you have mentioned to me before, my mood affects your own, whether you want it to or not.”
   Slayd scowled at Guile's eery ability to read his mind. “How do you do that?”
   Guile slowed his pace and looked up at Slayd, most of his expression hidden behind the strip of gauze. “Do you wish to know?”
   The gravity in his quiet words gave Slayd pause, and for a moment he second-guessed himself. But slowly he nodded. “I do.”
   Guile rubbed at the cloth over his face and directed his gaze skyward. “I have told you that I am Grigora, one of many sons of the Demon King. That does not seem to trouble you, and for that I am glad. But there are things you do not know about the blood ties between Grigora, nor does even our master, though he has studied long.”
   Guile kept at a slow pace as the grasses beneath their feet turned to scrub and finally faded away entirely as they entered the sand dunes, and it wasn't until they cleared the first rise that he spoke again. “The blood that flows through our veins is so saturated in magic you could almost say that one could not differentiate the two from each other. And that blood ties our family lines tightly together. It was with much Grigora magic that our master experimented in his studies of power and arcana. And Grigora blood is the most powerful arcana of all. He chose the blood of the strongest of my race, acquired in one of his many battles with my father, to use as a base for his greatest magic yet – when he created you.”
   Slayd paused in their trek through the sand. “I am no Grigora, Guile.”
   “No, you are not. But their blood flows through your veins. My father's blood flows through your veins. We are connected by more than simple ties of circumstance and guardianship. You may not be Grigora, but we are brothers.”
   Slayd blinked. The memories of how inextricable Guile's mood was with his own, of how Guile seemed to know his very thoughts and private feelings, it all seemed senseless if it were any other way. It seemed strange that he had never given thought to the manner in which he had been created... He raised a hand and studied it, digging a fingernail hard into the pad of his thumb until he broke the skin and a few droplets of blood oozed out. It was dark and thick, and seemed to flow with a mind of its own. “I... hardly believe it. But you speak the truth, don't you? Something strange in the back of my head tells me so.”
   Guile nodded. “Our connection binds our hearts and minds. I can feel much of what you feel, and hear some of your thoughts, after a fashion. If they are strong enough to break through your own mental barriers or you have dropped them for a moment.”
   Slayd held up a hand. “Wait, if you can do that, how come I cannot as well? There have been a handful of times I have thought I've been able to sense something more of you, but they are rare.”
   Guile shrugged and resumed walking the line they were following through the dunes. “I can only do so to the extent that I do because I have such... intense feelings towards you. Even my own brothers and sisters have never been so close, save for one or two.”
   Slayd raised an eyebrow. “Just how many siblings do you have, Guile?”
   That received a chuckle from his guardian. “I'm not so sure myself, really. Dozens, I would imagine, if not more. You have met a few of them.”
   “I have?”
   But Guile didn't clarify. He continued their path through the sand at a faster pace, and Slayd ran to catch up.
   The dunes led them over several rises and dips, some dry and shifting easily beneath their feet, others damp with seawater that they had not seen yet, packed hard and giving little under their weight. Sawgrass grew on the crests of the dunes, waving in a growing wind that smelled of salt and storm. Slayd inhaled deeply, taking in the rare fragrance but scowling to himself. The wind wasn't bothering him, but he never liked the sea. It was alien and unpredictable, and those who dwelt upon its shores and beneath its waves were known to be just as deadly as the waters around them. He had crossed the sea less than a handful of times, always in the presence of Guile and the Lich King and always under heavy guard with a small armada of ships. But this time the only constant was his guardian, and while he had faith in Guile's ability to protect him, he still found himself on edge, growing more jumpy the closer they got to the shore.
   And then they reached the top of the final dune, and there it was. Stretching out before them was a long and sandy beach, sawgrass growing in scattered clumps until they met the tide line. Slayd watched the dark waves curl and crest, their white tops foaming like the jaws of a mad beast, the roar of their crashes ringing softly in his ears. He cringed.
   “The lighthouse is almost due north.”
   His guardian's raspy voice broke Slayd's fixation, and he followed Guile's extended hand pointing along the shoreline. Less than a mile away the flat beach rose from the ocean in a steep climb, forming cliffs that fell to craggy rocks below, battered by the angry waves of the sea. Upon the cliff was a tower, painted white at some point long in the past and lit at the top with a shining beacon. Slayd watched the light slowly rotate around its peak, and he couldn't help but conjure images of a lone soldier holding his post against an innumerable army, watching quietly as the enemy gathered all around him. But Slayd shook his imaginings away and pointed himself in the direction Guile indicated. His guardian fell into step behind him, and they made their way back through a patch of sand dunes to find the little-used trail that led to the lighthouse.
   Though the path was steep, it did not take them long to reach the top of the hill, and Slayd turned briefly to gaze out at the horizon from this new viewpoint.
   He regretted it instantly. The sea was rough and dark, its frothy waves riddling its murky surface with stark white lines that only served to highlight the depth those waters concealed. And beyond the waves the horizon blended with the water amidst black clouds so thick Slayd almost through they were solid. He raised his eyes to the sky just overhead and had to suppress a shudder. Roiling clouds in stripes of grey and black rushed by at dizzying speed, their velocity reflected in the harsh wind that whipped around Slayd now. It was so different from the gentle breeze Slayd had felt in the ravines that he had a hard time believing that so little distance separated the two. He turned from gazing at the horizon and followed quickly after Guile, who was almost upon the lighthouse's doorstep.


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