With as much haste as was reasonably possible—and much more than was safe—they abandoned the oak tree and edged away from it uncertainly. All three of them wanted nothing more than to run as fast as their legs could carry them, but none wanted to be the one to make the first move.
“Who’s there?” Seymour demanded, his voice uneasy. “Show yourself!”
The leaves of the oak crackled, as if agitated by a gust of wind, and a few drifted downward, falling in lazy spirals. Seoc clung to Seymour’s tunic, cowering behind the Aechyed’s superior strength. His skin still tingled where the cold phantom fingers had brushed against him, on his neck and face.
“Who’s there?” Seymour repeated.
Seoc looked up at him. The Aechyed’s hair was standing on end; he looked as if he was wearing a hedgehog as a hat. It was not a reassuring sight.
The leaves at their feet skittered and crawled.
“We are the Dead Ones,” rasped the voice of the rustling leaves.
“What do you want?” Seymour squeaked, slipping into a hoarse falsetto.
“We do the will of the Serpent,” they replied. “We watch. If asked, we kill.”
Seymour slipped his hand behind his back and took Seoc by the wrist. “The Serpent, eh? Is that what it calls itself? Well,” he continued. If he was trying to control the pitch of his voice, he was failing miserably. “Convey a little message to your Serpent being for me, will you? Tell it to go fuck itself!”
He did not wait for them to respond. In an instant, Seoc’s feet left the ground and he was hanging over Seymour’s shoulder, watching the rapidly retreating ground beneath the Aechyed’s feet. Looking to his left, he saw Simon looking back at him from a finger’s-length away. Somehow, Seymour was carrying both of them and still managing to run faster than any bipedal creature Seoc had ever seen before. Being terrified out of one’s mind could do that to a person.
Seoc couldn’t see much of the passing scenery, but he caught the occasional glimpse. Trees. Dirt. Trees. Trees. Bushes. Goblin. Goblin with spear. Goblin looking baffled. Goblin feet. Goblins. Goblin, goblin, goblin. Trees. Trees. River. Trees. River. Etcetera.
Perhaps it lasted two minutes, perhaps it was ten, but whatever the case, such a feat of speed and strength could not be endured for long. It seemed that Seymour’s body gave out quite abruptly. One moment he was sprinting, the next, all three of them were on the ground, skidding and tumbling through the dirt, each at a slightly different bearing. Seoc came to rest in a drift of dry leaves and lay there for a while, staring up at the sky. He could hear Seymour vomiting beside him, and tried, unsuccessfully, to shut the sound out of his brain.
At length, Seoc sat up and looked around. The forest was thick and dark here, and primarily evergreen. The road, though, was even wider and more heavily worn than it had been only a few miles back.
He saw Simon sitting on the other side of the goblin road, digging in the dirt with a stick and ignoring the outside world. No visible injuries.
Seoc sighed. He no longer had any excuse to avoid looking at Seymour, but, quite frankly, he was afraid of what he might see. It was rather like the experience one might have upon accidentally cutting his hand, and being reluctant to look upon the injury for fear that the cut may be, in actuality, worse than it feels to be.
Seymour was lying on his side, panting and wheezing like a man saved from drowning. His face was flushed, adding a purplish hue to the normal pale green of his skin, and his clothing was soaked through with sweat. His eyes flickered and rolled, as if he was dropping in and out of consciousness. The retching had thankfully ceased, but it looked as though he had lost everything that had been in his stomach.
“Are you alright?” Seoc asked in a whisper. “Are you alright, Sey?”
The Aechyed’s hand twitched, then moved to find Seoc’s.
“I’m…fine,” Seymour breathed, squeezing Seoc’s fingers weakly. “Are you…?”
“Fine,” Seoc replied.
“He’s fine, too,” he assured him, glancing over at Simon, who was in the process of pulling an earthworm out of the soil at the edge of the road. “’Fine’ bein’ a relative term, o’ course.”
The corners of Seymour’s mouth trembled upwards in a smile. “What? What is he…doing now?”
“Playing with nightcrawlers.”
“Not…eating them, right?”
“No. No’ yet,” Seoc qualified. “But we’d best be goin’ before he starts. Can you stand?”
With painful slowness, Seymour eased himself into a sitting position. Then he nodded at Seoc. “Help me?”
Seoc took both of Seymour’s hands, set his feet, and pulled with all the force that his malnourished, ninety-five pound, five-foot-three-inch frame would allow. It was enough, but only barely. It was an equally difficult challenge to keep Seymour from tipping over the other way once he was on his feet.
His former cellmate looked up at him with half a worm hanging out of his mouth.
“Simon Marandur Edmund, you spit that oot immediately!” Seoc snarled.
Pulling an insolent face, Simon let the worm drop to the ground. “Yes, mother. As you wish, mother.”
Seoc ignored the jibe. “Thank you. Noo gi’e me a hand, will you?”