“There is a certain logic,” Seymour commented, “in worshipping as a god a being that can be proven to exist. But it strikes me as strange all the same.”
The Uarla snapped his fingers, and plates of food appeared on the table before them, emerging from a swirl of darkness. “As it is strange to my people to waste our prayers on a celestial deity. Yes, our Great Protector may not be omnipotent, but it is his blood that runs in the veins of every goblin, his likeness that causes antlers to grow from the head of every Uarla. Our worship is not a religion, it is a science.” The Uarla sank his doglike teeth into a thick cut of raw venison and tore at the meat. Blood running down his chin, he regarded Seymour across the table. “No worries, Aechyed. Your meat has been prepared the human way.”
“Thank you,” Seymour replied, relieved.
“By virtue of your species, you have no need to follow their finicky dietary customs, but as you have so soundly adopted their culture, I thought it best to tell my servants to roast it thoroughly. It is difficult to convince any creature to go against his upbringing, is it not?”
“I have not soundly adopted their culture,” Seymour sniffed indignantly.
The Uarla tore off another strip of venison. “You dress like them, you speak their language, you eat like them, you cut your hair in their style, you follow their mores and manners…”
“Do you not?”
“My…sexual predilections most certainly go against their mores, I’d say,” Seymour muttered into a goblet of water.
“But you hide them, and thus conform.”
“Only for fear of death,” Seymour spat.
The Uarla smiled, using his tattooed wrist to wipe the blood from his face. “It matters not for what reason you follow their customs—only that you do. I am not faulting you for for your ways, Seymour, merely observing that they are different from my own. If I have offended you, I apologize.”
Seymour picked at his venison with his pocket knife and did not reply.
“How fare your friends?”
The Aechyed shrugged. “Not well, but I think they are improving. They still aren’t eating much, though.”
The goblin nodded, his peculiar, branchlike antlers wavering in the candlelight. “That is common. The parasites do not succumb immediately to treatment; rather, they fight it as long as they can. Your charges’ appetites will return as soon as the worms have left their bodies. It should be soon, you need not worry.”
“They are so very thin…”
“If they are not eating voraciously by tomorrow morning, you may bring them to me,” the Uarla assured him. “I can set them right.”
They ate in silence for a while longer, the candles and torches flickering around them in such a way that Seymour felt as though he were in some great mausoleum, lit for the dead.
“You wonder why I asked you here this night,” the Uarla remarked eventually.
Seymour gave a slight nod of confirmation. “So I do.”
“I know you intend to leave as soon as your friends are well enough to travel. I summoned you to advise you on your journey.”
“And what advice have you to offer?”
The Uarla finished his supper and licked his fingers clean. His tongue, Seymour noticed, was purple and forked, its shape outlined with at least ten metal piercings. “The Carvil Valley is a dangerous place these days. For now, the populated areas—Carviliet, Carvil Crossing, Edmund Manor, and so forth—remain relatively secure, but the wild spaces in between have grown deadly, especially after nightfall. There is a reason you first encountered my people so far north of our mountain home. It is because we can no longer venture south. There is little game left in the Carvil Valley, and it is far too dangerous to hunt it. The evil of the valley has claimed many goblin lives this autumn.”
“What then do you suggest? I have no choice but to enter the valley in order to reach the Castle Carviliet, after all.”
“I suggest, when you do choose to leave, that you depart as soon as the first rays of dawn touch the sky, and try to reach Carviliet before dusk.”
“That is impossible!” Seymour protested. “It is near a hundred miles from here to Carviliet, and it is thick forest through most of it. We’d be hard-pressed to make it a quarter of that distance by nightfall!”
“There are more roads through the forest than you account for, Seymour. At any rate, your steeds are mage-bred. They have the speed and endurance enough to deliver you in the allotted time. It will be a close thing, but it is not impossible.”
“If find you cannot reach Carviliet by evening, you should at least be able to make Carvil Crossing. I wouldn’t advise spending the night there unless absolutely necessary, as the people are sure to recognize your companions as fugitives, but it would be safer than allowing night to catch you in the forest. The evil of the valley travels by darkness, killing every creature in its path—and I suspect it would be especially interested in targeting you three.”
Seymour frowned. “This evil you speak of—it is the Parasite, isn’t it?”
“If it isn’t the Parasite, it works to the same goals.” The Uarla gazed into the guttering flame of a nearby candle. “There are many in this world who seek its destruction. They may not all have the same motive, but they all await the same end.”