The hare stalked the wolf.
His trail had grown alternately warm and cold over the years, his passage never anything more than whispers. Rumors filled Eni's ears and journal, mutterings heard only when the nights grew long and cups grew empty, but they were enough. They had brought her to Ctesiphon, where the air felt almost galvanic with potential, and to a small tavern where she knew the other patrons felt the same.
The voices of mammals were just a little too loud, a little too cheery, with a desperate edge to every word that passed from one set of lips to another. All conversation stopped as the door banged open, an ash-choked wind blowing in grit and making the lanterns hung from the rafters overhead sway drunkenly. The floorboards vibrated with the passage of a massive bull making his way to the bar, the mournful breeze dying in an instant as a waitress slammed the door shut.
Mammals began talking again as the bull sat down heavily, wordlessly ordering a beer, and for a moment Eni could almost tell herself she was imagining the heavy atmosphere.
Just outside the inn's cozy confines Ctesiphon was dying by inches, the stench of burning crops impossible to banish no matter how many sweet-smelling herbs dangled from the smoke-blackened rafters. The Blight was implacable, an enemy that couldn't be fought by any normal means, but Eni wasn't searching for someone normal.
She wanted what everyone left in the city did, from the farmers with orchards of once-sweet fruit trees gone soft and gray to the merchants with pockets as empty as the markets and streets. Perhaps it was a foolish hope; it had been abandoned by those with the means to flee Ctesiphon and the Blight that licked hungrily at its crops, but it was a hope nonetheless.
Their perdition would end, just as the Scourge had, if only they kept their faith. At the thought Eni's paw ran across her latest treasure, taking solace from the feeling of the hard cover underneath the thick cotton wrappings that entombed it. She had nothing else to show for her tenacity, nothing else to bring forth for the Archivist's judgement and prove her mettle as an antiquarian, but more than anything the heavy tome felt like a sign.
It might have only been wishful thinking, something to avoid considering the Archivist's subtle but crushing disappointment if she returned from her latest journey with nothing else, but to Eni it seemed undeniably right. A cheaply printed eighth edition copy of The Seven Labors had been the book that ignited her imagination with tales of the Aberrant who had pushed back the darkness and brought the world into a new golden age of peace and prosperity, and her discovery of a first edition copy of the same volume seemed undeniably portentous.
The stories it held were old friends, staunchly loyal to Eni no matter how far she traveled and comforting in the strength of their hero's example. Prior to his disappearance decades before her birth he had always shown up where the mammals of the world had needed him most, and it was why Eni had stayed.
If there was anywhere else in the world where a hero was more desperately needed, Eni couldn't think of it. And so, as the weeks had dragged past and the citizens of Ctesiphon torched one field after another in a hopeless attempt at slowing the Blight, Eni had kept going through her list.
She had started it years ago, when she first began to search, and although it had spanned dozens of different journals and hundreds of pages it was still so clear in her mind she barely needed to look at her notes. Her time in Ctesiphon had narrowed the prospects, each failure another harsh line through a name, but all of those failures had brought her to the Three Apples Inn. The wolf sitting quietly at the bar might have been the next name to check, but the light in the tavern was just ever so slightly too dim to really get a good look at him. Resisting the urge to squint, just in case someone got the wrong idea and thought she was trying to be alluring, she could barely see his lips move as he addressed the bartender. Eni strained to make out the words as best as she could with her ears covered, trying to focus solely on what he was saying.
"You hear about those things?"
The words hadn't been meant for Eni, but she couldn't help how her neck straightened and went rigid as she snapped reflexively away from the wolf toward the source. At one of the small tables near where she had set herself up, two grizzled old badgers who might have been brothers or cousins were getting stupendously drunk. The thinner and somewhat less gray of the two was the one who had spoken, his mug spilling cider as he gestured theatrically.
"I hear from Limm his barn got ripped apart by something bigger'n a house, with more legs than his entire family. May the Mother blind me if I lie."
The other badger snorted so expressively that Eni watched in fascinated horror as the spray from his nose landed in his mug. If the badger noticed, he gave no sign of it, drinking deeply before replying.
"Limm's so full of shit his eyes are brown. Probably just talking big so you'd buy him a round."
"But—" the first badger began to protest, but his drinking partner cut him off.
"But nothing, Nale," he said, "You really think something'd attack Ctesiphon? The Eighth Sovereign? No. Limm's a drunk and a fool, and so are you if you listen to his stories."
The badgers' talk drifted back to less interesting territory—Nale's wife apparently had an abscess on the back of her neck he half-feared and half-hoped would kill her—and Eni repressed a sigh as she looked back down at her notes.
Staring at the pages, she felt an immediate shame with herself. He would come. He would. Despite every objection or sly insult from her colleagues, despite every setback and disappointment Eni had faced in the past ten years, despite even the complete lack of any definitive proof, her desire to find him had never lessened. She could feel how close she was, all the signs pointing to Ctesiphon no matter what a tipsy badger thought. He would return, called away from whatever noble deeds had consumed his attention to deliver the world from evil, and she would be there to see it.
That was the theory, anyway.
In reality, it had been two weeks of nothing as Eni's purse rapidly emptied, the cost of food seeming to go up every time she went to what was left of the market. All that happened was that more of the farmland surrounding the city was burned, more mammals left, and Eni herself edged closer to the point where she'd have to give up. To earn a little money and stave off the inevitable she had tried offering her services as a scrivener, but there just weren't enough mammals left who needed something written for them or read to them. Her tankard of cider and plate of wilted vegetables was only the third payment she had received so far, and it might be the last one.
But the cider warmed her insides pleasantly against the cool fall weather, and Eni drank slowly as she looked from her neatly organized journal of notes and sketches of wolf Aberrants—far too many of which she had crossed out—to where the mammal at the bar had been. He had vanished while she listened in on the badgers, and Eni didn't manage to swallow her disappointment; she finally let out her sigh as she looked back down at her table to the carefully wrapped book. She had glanced through it once, when she had been negotiating its purchase, and it had stayed securely bound in its cotton shroud ever since. She knew that she shouldn't open it, and certainly not anywhere as far away from the controlled environment of Terregor's university as an inn, particularly when there were still so many Aberrants in Ctesiphon to research, but…
She had barely even examined the book, after all, and surely it deserved a second look. She hadn't had nearly enough time to truly appreciate the craftsmanship that had gone into its making. Still, she was as careful as she could be, making sure the book didn't touch the surface of her table directly and wiping her paws against a corner of the cotton before delicately turning the pages to the story of her favorite labor.
The illustrations were far more beautiful than the ones in the copy held in the archives; whatever long-dead noble who had commissioned the manuscript to be copied had employed the services of a masterful artist with a bold eye for color. That the hero in this tome barely resembled the one in the other was hardly surprising; it felt as though no one agreed on any part of his appearance besides the fact that he had been a wolf Aberrant with a thick tail.
The version she saw on the page had a curiously reptilian cast to his features, with a long and wide muzzle filled with needle-like teeth and feet almost like a raptor's. The illustration of him wielding Nidhogg, his legendary flaming whip sword, to defeat the Wyrmerian Wyvern at what would become the Glass Plains following their duel was the best of its kind Eni had ever seen, the painted flames weaving complex patterns around the terrible beast.
Eni looked up with a grimace of annoyance at the sudden cackling laugh of a hyena telling a ribald joke a few tables away to an almost manically cheerful crowd of eight or ten mammals. She shook her head and looked back down at the book, at the words that she could have recited by heart, and it pulled her in as it always did. The irritating laughter became the crackling of a fire, the clink of mugs becoming the sound of armor moving. The dim light of the inn seemed to burst into the terrible brightness of battle as Eni lost herself in the story.
There was an earth-quaking roar as the great beast bellowed its fury, and a mighty gout of flames followed the sound. The very ground melted into a pool of slag, burning white-hot and throwing off a shimmering haze of heat that brought glowing embers soaring upwards. The wyvern was a monster beyond any other, for it was not just as large as a castle but was also possessed of a ruthless low cunning. A different monster, a lesser monster, would have simply eaten Princess Almara, the greatest beauty of the Volkis Kingdom.
But the wyvern had not.
The fearsome monster had the she-wolf clutched in its mighty grasp, each talon larger than her entire body. The beast kept the princess positioned between them as it turned its great bulk, never allowing an opening. Even as it moved, the beast swiveled a head the size of a gatehouse to track its quarry. The hero of heroes was but a mote compared to the wyvern's bulk, and surely must have seemed no larger than one of the cinders rising from the pools of molten glass it had formed. But the monster was right to be watchful, because the grim wolf had dodged and eluded each and every one of its bursts of fire, any one of which could have burned up a normal mammal so completely that not even bones would remain.
But the mammal it fought was far from normal.
The fire of the wyvern was as feeble as a match is compared to the sun, so intense was the fire that Nidhogg burned with. The mighty whip-sword made dazzling patterns like lightning across the night sky as its master wielded it, there and gone in an instant. Princess Almara cried out as the tip of the whip-sword came within a hairsbreadth of one of her ears, but such was the—
"Hey!" an uneven voice called, breaking her focus, "You there."
Eni looked up from the book at the mammal who had dared interrupt her, feeling the first tingles building in the tips of her fingers and toes. Eni gasped, trying to reel it back, to force it down, but the drunk seemed to read something in her face that wasn't there. He was a deer, his movements overly precise with alcohol, and he caught himself heavily on the edge of Eni's table. A tankard full of foamy beer was loosely gripped in one hoof as he balanced himself with the other. Eni shrank back from his boozy breath, crinkling her nose at the stench of him; the sour and yeasty smell of the beer blended poorly with the flowery cologne he must have doused himself in.
"Go away," she gasped out, managing to lift her chin to look him in the eye as she placed her arms protectively over the manuscript and swept up her notes.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked, straightening himself a touch.
"I don't… I don't care," Eni said, but her words were drifting away from her as the power started thrumming through her limbs.
The deer's clothes were finely made even if they were stained with beer. The rich embroidery of his tunic formed an abstract pattern that could have been just about anything, the stitching straining at his sizable gut. His widespread antlers had been plated in gold and inlaid with precious stones, and were it not for his drink-slacken gaze he might have almost looked dignified.
"Come on," the deer slurred at Eni as he ignored her words, "The Mother gives you a body like that, she doesn't want it covered. This isn't Ghabarahata, you know. So come on, let me see."
He reached out, groping at the net hood Eni wore to hide her long and scalloped ears and protect her hearing, and when a finger brushed clumsily against her cheek the energy inside her reached out. Eni sucked in a sharp breath and the deer grinned, but even so sharp as her hearing was she couldn't hear what he said over the sudden cacophony as everything in the inn with a spirit reached out to her.
"Let me burn him, please," the fire crackling merrily in the hearth whispered, its voice pleading as fire tended to be, "Oh, let me out and let me burn him."
"Drown him," burbled the water in the beer in his tankard, "I can drown him."
"Or boil him," the fire suggested, "Yes, boil him."
"Choke him," the air in the tavern moaned, "Please, let me choke him for you."
The voices of the elements were the loudest, but they weren't the only ones. The insects crawling through the walls, the ghostly echo of wooden floorboards, even the rough-hewn stones of the foundation all called out in voices without words. The spirits tugged at the power within Eni, trying to pull it loose, and Eni could feel what little control she had unraveling like a ball of yarn kicked down a flight of stairs. Remember what happened to the slavers, Eni thought desperately, trying to force down the energies within her, Remember—
"Is this deer bothering you, milady?" a new voice interrupted, loud enough to pierce the din.
Eni looked up. The drunk's hoof had been drawn away from Eni by a paw that was much larger and broader, with thick golden rings on the clawed fingers. The newcomer was the wolf who she had been trying to eavesdrop on, and so close to the lantern above her table she finally got a better look at him. He was an Aberrant with an almost leonine touch to his appearance; his muzzle was shorter and blunter than a normal wolf's and contrasting against his black fur he had a magnificent reddish mane that had been braided with silver beads. His eyes were amber, and while they were kindly when he looked to Eni they instantly hardened once his attention turned to the drunk. He was powerfully built, taller than any wolf Eni had ever seen, and his clothes were richly embroidered. But everything else about his appearance was secondary to his tail. It was long and thick, shaved as was the common style. But what if it wasn't shaved? Despite herself, despite every false start and failure over the past ten years, Eni couldn't help the twinge of hope that fluttered up her chest.
Could she have possibly, at long last, found him?
"Didn't mean anything," the deer was mumbling, glaring spitefully at her rescuer as he staggered off, but he did leave them.
The Aberrant smiled at Eni as he reached down to the floor and picked up her hood, which she hadn't even felt coming loose as the force within her surged. She could feel it inside her, still—she could always feel it—but it had died down, the threat of it bubbling over having passed.
"He owns a quarter of the orchards around Ctesiphon," Eni's new companion said in a low voice, nodding at the retreating back of the deer, "Or he did, anyway. With the Blight I expect he'll lose everything."
He passed Eni her hood before adding, "Not that it excuses accosting a lady. Are you alright?"
The Aberrant's voice was soulful and mellow, rich and warm as an old book. He looked to be about forty, somewhat weathered but possessing a nearly regal nobility.
"Fine," Eni managed as she took her hood and carefully put it back on.
Her hood was patterned after a fishing net, made of tightly woven silk strands and weighted at the corners, which made it a comforting presence once her ears were covered again.
"I must say, I don't think I've ever seen a hare Aberrant before," he observed, "But I'm afraid wolf Aberrants such as myself are nearly as common as copper pieces."
He smiled at her, inviting her to join his little joke, and after a moment of stunned silence—almost no one ever correctly called her a hare instead of a rabbit—Eni smiled back, hoping he couldn't see her notes and sketches hidden under the wrappings for the book. He was right, and on both counts. Eni had never met another leporid like herself, but of all the species of mammals it seemed as though wolf Aberrants occurred much more frequently than in any others. It was one of those frustrating points for trying to trace the legend; with so many other wolf Aberrants, each of them with their own largely unique appearance, it muddied the water as to what he had looked like. It had also been quite common for the illustrators of books to simply find such a wolf to use as a model, which didn't help either.
"I'm Ceslaus, by the way," he continued, offering her his paw to shake.
Had she at last learned the true name of her idol? A flicker of enthusiasm passed over her at the idea, her tail twitching, before she told herself not to get too excited.
"Eni," she said as they shook.
Eni had shaken paws with nearly a hundred Aberrants during her quest, all of them with five-fingered paws like hers that unquestionably marked them as different. Besides that commonality Ceslaus's paw was nothing like Eni's, being far larger and thicker, but his touch was quite gentle. He applied so little pressure Eni could hardly feel anything but the slight roughness of his paw pads against her palm and finger tips. An instant before he could break their contact, Eni risked upsetting the chaotic flow within her to deliberately pull a little up and push. It was something she had learned, more through trial and error than anything else, sometime before she left her home village for good. There had been a Chloroid in the village square, a monstrous tree tolerated only because it was completely immobile and a single drop of the juice from its misshapen fruit could dull almost any pain. Eni had found that when she grasped the threads of power she could feel the tree's response, as though she was standing a good distance away from a fire and put out her palm to savor the warmth. Surely, if the wolf Aberrant really was him, she'd be able to feel something similar.
It wasn't like feeling the heat of a fire from ten feet away; it was like she had plunged her paw into a fire except without the pain. Energy, stronger than she had ever felt or even dreamed about, called back to Eni, blotting everything else out as it overrode her senses. She could see colors exploding before her vision, her ears overwhelmed by unearthly music sweeter and stranger than anything she had ever heard. The smell of it was like the beginning of spring and the promise of summer, so lovely that the gloomy threat of winter seemed impossibly distant. Eni's entire body burned with the sensation of that force caressing her back, each strand of fur on her body so exquisitely sensitive she felt aware of each one.
And then Ceslaus let go and it all disappeared as instantly as a soap bubble popping. He shivered slightly, his eyes widening in surprise, and Eni felt as though they were completely alone in the inn, everyone else entirely irrelevant.
"You— You're a very special hare, aren't you Eni?" Ceslaus said at last, and he all but staggered as he took the seat across from her at the little table, "Where did you come from?"
"Siverets," she said eagerly, "Are you—"
Ceslaus put a finger to his lips, glancing around the room as if checking to see if anyone had noticed them. So far as Eni could tell, no one had, the other mammals still lost in their own conversations and drinks. "Not so loud," he murmured, and Eni realized she had spoken quite a bit louder than usual, "I've never heard of Siverets. Where is it?"
"It's on an island off the Nihuron Peninsula, to the West," Eni said, and Ceslaus nodded slowly.
"The Nihuron Peninsula," he repeated, his voice low and musing, "That's a long way."
It was. When Eni had left Siverets with the goal of attending university in Terregor, it had taken months to reach Ctesiphon, and then another few weeks of travel once inside the Circle to reach her destination.
"Are you…" Eni began softly, and then pitched her voice even lower, "Are you a mage?"
Eni had wanted to ask him if he was the almost mythical hero, returned from his long absence, before she realized how foolish a question it was. The hero had avoided being found for decades, and if Ceslaus really was who she was looking for the last thing she wanted to do was scare him off. He would have to be a mage, though, like one from the days of old when there had actually been mages. Ceslaus glanced around the inn again, and then he slowly pulled a pipe out of his tunic. He pressed one finger against the bowl and the tobacco within suddenly started burning. It had been, unquestionably, magic, done with such ease that Eni couldn't help but be jealous of his control.
"We shouldn't talk about that here," he said, leaning conspiratorially across the table, "Did you come here alone?"
Eni nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and Ceslaus gave her an encouraging smile in response. "I'm sure you have a lot more questions for me," he said, "And I have some for you. I've got a villa just beyond the gate where we can speak without being overheard."
His amber eyes tracked slowly around the room as he spoke, as though he was inviting her to join his paranoia. It wasn't as though an inquisitor was sitting in the inn, after all, and Eni had seen Ceslaus use magic to light his pipe.
"Where is it?" Eni asked, "When'll you be free?"
Ceslaus lit up his face, his features kindly and warm. "It's not far. We could go now," he said, and he stood up, pulling at the front of his tunic.
Eni stood up too, her remaining cider and plate of food entirely forgotten. She stuffed her notes and sketches back into her bag, hoping again that Ceslaus hadn't caught a glimpse of them, and barely even remembered to wrap the copy of The Seven Labors into its cotton cocoon before it joined the notes; she was simply much too eager to hear what he had to say. Could he at least know something that would help? After ten long years of doing the best she could to manage the unpredictable energy that had suddenly welled up in her, after spending so much time and effort searching for any clue that might guide her to her goal, Eni had achieved her first small success. Even if Ceslaus wasn't who she hoped he was—and she had to admit to herself that she desperately hoped that he was—a mage was the next best thing. A mage would have knowledge that couldn't be found in any of the world's libraries, no matter how extensive or rare their collection. As she followed the wolf toward the exit of the inn, Eni felt as though for the first time in quite a while she was making progress.
And then, when she was not even five feet from the door, the warning horns began alarming.
The sound was deeply unpleasant, a mixture of a booming bass pressure Eni could feel in her lungs and a higher pitched overtone that all but deafened her sensitive hearing. Throughout the inn, mammals were reacting to it, some freezing in place and others bolting suddenly upright. One mammal fell off his chair, something that under any other circumstances would have surely thrown his audience into gales of laughter. But no one spoke. Even though the horns had not been sounded in decades everyone in the inn, prey and predator alike, understood what they meant on a primal level.
And then, like an anthill that had been kicked, the inn flew into a mad frenzy of activity. Mammals pushed for the exits, all manners forgotten as they shoved others aside. Eni herself was body checked heavily by a goat bleating in mindless panic, and she barely managed to make it out the door before the rest of the mad crush. The other buildings on the street were emptying in a similar fashion, all of the mammals scrambling in the direction of the Altstadt and the protection of the wall and gate. Cries of alarm filled the smokey air, but the warning horns could not be drowned out. Eni's mind was reeling in confusion; how could this possibly be happening now, right when she was about to get some answers?
"Eni!" Ceslaus shouted, and she could barely hear him above the din, "We need to get inside the wall! Hurry!"
His eyes were large and full of concern. Only, no. It wasn't concern.
It was fear.
Ceslaus was afraid of the monsters, and he was already eager to leave the inn and flee for the protection the wall offered. Eni realized it, and her heart sank. He was a mage, of that she was certain, but he was no kind of hero. A hero would have never run from a monster, wouldn't cower in safety while danger lurked outside.
Eni swallowed her disappointment, turning to follow Ceslaus, when her eyes were suddenly drawn to something that didn't belong.
There was a mammal-sized pillar of shadow, black as fresh ink on a clean page, moving against the push of the crowd. And then the shadow was free of the crowd and seemed to be nothing more than a mammal, tall and wearing a ratty gray cloak with the hood up to hide his face.
Eni would have dismissed her vision as a trick of the light, something she hadn't seen right in the moment with so much soot and ash still filling the air. But the mammal was walking—not running—with a calm sense of purpose. And he was walking away from the safety of the wall, apparently unperturbed by the danger of a monster. He was too well-covered for Eni to tell his species, but as he passed her Eni caught a glimpse of the tip of a long tail poking from beneath the hem of his cloak.
Excitement as shockingly sharp as when she had first heard the legends suddenly rose in her chest, and for an instant it was like being a kit again when everything had felt more intense. Just like that, Eni knew what she had to do, and not even the pragmatic part of her mind could protest the wave of enthusiasm washing over her.
"Eni, come on!" Ceslaus shouted, but she ignored him.
She could always find his villa later, after the threat of the monster was gone. But if the ragged mammal was him, Eni wasn't going to let the opportunity slip through her fingers.
She turned away from Ceslaus and ran after the stranger.