Chapter 02: Siren
"Eni!" Ceslaus's voice called, distinct even above the fearful chatter of the fleeing crowd.
Eni didn't stop running as she spared a glance over her shoulder back at Ceslaus. He seemed to fight a brief internal battle, hesitantly reaching out with one paw and taking a few tentative steps. Then the alarm horns sounded, fiercer and stronger than the first warning, and Eni came to a halt. It was the last blast, signaling that the gates would be sealed shut in five minutes.
Ceslaus stopped dead and turned, looking this way and that. In hardly any time at all, from the direction of the stable across the street from the inn, a fine gray stallion appeared at his side. He was astride his mount in a flash and was soon easily outpacing the mammals forced simply to rush as fast as their own legs could carry them.
Eni turned back to the stranger, who had started walking a little faster, and pushed Ceslaus out of her mind as she started running again. Knowing that she was about to be locked outside of the city with a monster—an actual monster—prowling about should have been frightening. But she wasn't.
Eni knew she should have run for the safety of the wall the way Ceslaus and everyone else in the Vorstadt had, falling to her knees and thanking the Mother when the gate closed. And yet she didn't regret her decision.
Maybe it'd be another dead end, another painful reminder of why she shouldn't trust her hunches. But anyone suicidally bold enough to go off toward a monster was a special mammal indeed, and Eni wanted to at least talk to him.
That, however, was going to be easier said than done if she didn't move faster. The stranger wasn't quite running, but the long strides of his legs moved him along with an easy rhythm. He was getting harder to see, too, the dull and unadorned gray of his cloak blending into walls and making him vanish in the pools of shadow that the few streetlights didn't penetrate. Off Ardashir Street, the main and wide thoroughfare that ran right past the Three Apples Inn and continued to the gates of Ctesiphon after a slight kink, the streets became almost claustrophobically narrow, the overhanging second stories of buildings looming above Eni's head as she chased after the stranger.
The press of mammals fleeing the opposite direction slowed to a trickle as Eni followed the brief glimpses of the gray cloak that she got among the crush of bodies, and eventually the streets were empty of anyone but her and the stranger. Everyone else must have either made it to the gate or decided to huddle up in their homes, choosing to risk death by monster attack if it meant protecting their belongings from opportunistic looters. The stranger seemed too focused on wherever he was going to be a looter, passing by houses and shops with no apparent interest, and he didn't seem to have noticed Eni, either. His head, so far as she could tell from behind and with it covered by a hood, didn't deviate from looking forward, and he made turn after turn through narrow alleys and side streets with absolutely no hesitation.
His pace was gradually increasing, and as the distance between them lengthened Eni thought she heard the solid rumbling bang of the gates being sealed, although they had to be blocks away. It spurred her onward to press herself for more speed, and when the stranger turned down an alley she was running flat out as she turned after him and came to a sudden stop.
The stranger was gone.
It shouldn't have been possible. The alley had no doors at street level, no balconies above her. There was nothing to hide behind, the smoothly worn cobbles covered only by rotting garbage and scraps of peril papers faded by sunlight. A single streetlight somewhere beyond the other end of the long and narrow alley made it bright enough to see everything, and though Eni desperately craned her neck as she looked up and down, she couldn't see so much as a sign of the strange mammal. He had, somehow, completely vanished. Something like panic made Eni's heart start beating furiously, and she could feel her pulse in the tips of her long ears as she stood still, straining to hear anything.
There was only silence.
The usual sounds of the city were gone, only the gentlest whisper of a wind fouled by the garbage it blew across making any noise whatsoever. There were no murmurs of conversation or the creak and groan of carts, not even the clop of hooves against cobblestones. It shouldn't have been possible for the stranger to lose her. It shouldn't have been possible. It shouldn't! And yet he had. The frustration that welled up inside Eni's chest felt almost childish to her, raw and overwhelming. Something deep within her, something she couldn't describe let alone name, told her that she needed to find the mammal she had spotted.
There were no visible tracks to follow, no clues that would tell her which direction the mammal had gone. All she had to go on was the feeling that he was chasing after the monster, and then suddenly Eni knew what she had to do. Eni breathed deeply, trying to settle her pounding heart, and then cautiously began gathering the power within herself. It was like picking up threads, each as fine as a strand of fur.
She knew the danger of what she was doing—it had been the luck of Ceslaus's interruption that the deer in the inn had escaped without injury—but it was the only thing she could think of. If the stranger was going after the monster, all she had to do was find the monster. Eni pushed, willing the power away from herself, and almost instantly felt something.
It was like the heat of the sun on her face on a winter day coming from the direction of Ctesiphon's gates. Warm, but still faint, and it could only be Ceslaus, cowering with all the other citizens. But from the east, from where the borders of the Vorstadt gave way to farmland, the feeling made her legs weak.
When she had been standing right next to Ceslaus and reached out with her power to him, it had been like a gentle explosion that had touched all her senses at once and threatened to overwhelm her mind. What she felt from the east was just as strong, but different somehow. Hungrier. It was like being caressed by a lover's paws who knew every inch of her body, like feeling a mouth against her own. It was as though all of the blood in her body had come alive, and Eni felt acutely aware of herself in a way she never had before, tingling with the sensation.
And then the feeling was gone and Eni realized she had fallen to her knees. She blinked, and when she rubbed at her eyes her paw came away wet. She didn't know if that had been the monster or the mammal she had felt, but for it to be so strong, even at such a distance, only renewed her hope. It was powerful in a way nothing she had ever known was powerful, and Eni started running in the direction the feeling had come from.
Ctesiphon was a maze of streets, but Eni ignored all of the businesses and houses she rushed past, turning only when she had to in order to keep heading east. Eventually the buildings began to thin out, the alleys getting wider until there were actually patches of sickly grasses between buildings that could charitably be called gardens, before she was in the farmlands.
Despite her urgency, Eni was awed by the devastation that the Blight had brought. From where she had emerged, everything she could see was charred stubble, the crops closest to the buildings of Ctesiphon plowed under and those further away burned to the roots. The stench of smoke clung to the earth, and Eni could see a billowing haze of smoke coming from the south and further east where fires still burned. She forced herself onward, her feet crunching through the brittle stalks of plants ruined first by the Blight and then by fire, searching desperately for any trace of the stranger she was pursuing. There was none, and so Eni didn't deviate from her course at all.
She ran toward the cloud of smoke, coughing as the acrid fumes burned at her lungs and brought painful tears to her eyes, but she didn't stop. The visibility dropped down to almost nothing; she could have been standing twenty feet from the mammal and not seen him. But even her sharp ears couldn't pick anything up, and she ran onward.
Eventually, a massive shape began to coalesce dreamily out of the smoke, and it wasn't until she was almost on top of it that Eni realized it was a barn. Just as she idly wondered how the barn had survived the burning of the fields, Eni stumbled and nearly fell into the fire break that had been dug deep into the surrounding soil. She caught her balance just in time, clumsily leaping across the pit, and as she paused to right herself Eni stopped a moment to think.
She was running after a strange mammal and a monster, and the only weapons she had were her dagger, which seemed pathetically small tucked into her belt, and the weighted net she still wore like a shawl. Neither one was exactly ideal for if something attacked her, and so she ran to the barn's door. Its red paint had dulled to a grayish pink from the soot that clung to it, and the metal hinges and latch showed runnels of rust, but it slid open smoothly enough and let her in.
The interior was nearly empty, the hayloft on the second floor depleted down to little more than a few stray pieces of hay and dust, but a number of tools hung neatly on one wall of the first floor. Eni's eyes ran past farming equipment she couldn't have guessed a use for—Siverets had been a fishing village, after all—before stopping on the one thing she knew she could use.
Eni grabbed a pitchfork from the wall and hefted it. Compared to her trident, safely locked away in the room she was renting with the rest of her belongings, the balance was terrible and it was too long. The tines were somewhat crooked and rusty, but they did still come to sharp points. It was better than nothing, though, and she left her hood on to leave both paws free to control the awkward weapon. If she was wrong, and the stranger was simply crazy, she'd at least be able to put up a good fight.
She knew it was foolish. But Eni didn't feel foolish as she hurried out of the barn and leaped over the fire break on its other side, her stride unbroken as she kept heading due east. Surely the power she had felt meant she was heading toward something special, and she ignored the growing ache in her lungs and the worsening burning in her eyes. Time became impossible to judge, the light of the moon and stars only feebly reaching her through the haze of smoke. It might have been only fifteen minutes or perhaps half an hour or more before she came across something that once more made her stop.
In the burnt remains of the field was something unlike anything Eni had ever seen before. Droplets of some thick black liquid beaded up on the surface of the ground, somehow not soaking in. It was oily and somehow nasty-looking, its malevolent darkness keeping Eni from poking it with her borrowed pitchfork let alone touching it with her paw. She continued onward, listening as hard as she could for anything, and could have sworn she heard something from up ahead.
Eni moved a bit more cautiously, noting that there seemed to be more puddles of that unpleasant substance as she drew nearer to the source of the sound. Something was hissing and clicking, like the roar of a waterfall was being mixed with the sound of all the punch card readers in the university running at the same time, but the night was still too dark and the lingering smoke was still too thick to see what it was.
Until suddenly it no longer was.
Eni had come across another barn that might have been larger than the last. It was impossible to be sure, however, because there was almost none of it left. The building had been smashed into kindling, not burned, and standing incongruously intact by the wreckage was an enormous grain silo that might have been a gleaming white in the moonlight had it not been for the ash clinging to it. A farmhouse, nearly as ruined as the outbuilding, was falling to pieces nearby, and between the two was what could only be the thing that had wrecked both.
The university had the preserved head of a Shogorath in its collection, nearly a hundred and fifty years old and kept in a barrel full of alcohol larger than Eni was with a glass viewing panel as a lid. She knew how large monsters could grow, after all, and had seen it for herself. But the difference between what she had intellectually known for years and the horrible reality before her took her breath away and made her freeze in place.
In the dim light, Eni could only catch terrifying impressions of the creature's massive body; its pulsating abdomen was larger than a shed and the fearsome claws at the end of its lone pair of arms could have cut through an ox. Its repulsive head was bigger than Eni and its eight loathsome legs were horribly armored and bristling with wire-like hairs. Its mouth was a nightmare of articulating parts, like a machine designed by a maniac given biological form. A nest of six glowing red multifaceted eyes the size of Eni's fists were set into its squat wedge of a head, two more rising above it on stalks.
It could only be what the Codex Monstrum called a Zezernak, and giving it a name was weirdly comforting, as though knowing what the monster was would give Eni some kind of control over the situation. It almost certainly wouldn't, but remembering the dull and slightly stilted language of the book seemed to make Eni's legs work again. She threw herself to the ground, pressing herself into the ash-covered remains of plants without a care for the mess she was making of her clothes, and watched the monster with her heart pounding in her throat.
She knew she had no hope of killing it, not something like that. Even if the power within her was more predictable, it was far from controllable; the last thing she needed would be to miss with her one attack and then be eaten alive by the Zezernak. The creature's movements were ponderously slow, its legs moving with a terrible grace as its two-stalk eyes waved about as though it was scenting the wind.
It was, Eni saw, the source of the terrible inky liquid she had seen; one of the massive glowing eyes set into its head had an arrow lodged in it, and the monster was weeping something oily from the ruins. Its carapace was covered with scrapes and scratches, dulling the glossy blacks and browns mottling its shell, and that foul ichor sluggishly dripped from half-a-dozen small wounds.
The Zezernak clicked to itself as it used one claw to lift something to its terrible mouth; Eni caught a brief glimpse of a fur-covered paw and realized with horror that it was eating the remains of a mammal. She swallowed hard, wishing she could see more clearly in the dark. Was the monster devouring the stranger she had chased? Eni suddenly realized the enormity of what she had done by staying outside the safety of Ctesiphon's walls. If she caught the Zezernak's attention, she somehow doubted the pitchfork she was clutching as tightly as a lifeline would do much more than bounce off the foul creature's tough hide.
She stayed frozen for what felt like eons, her nose twitching as she warred with herself on what to do next. If the stranger was dead, she was risking that she'd be next. But if he wasn't…
The decision was suddenly made for her when something burst out of the ground near the Zezernak with explosive force, a cloud of dust shifting around the thing as it rose. It was, Eni saw, the stranger. The mammal threw his cloak open with one paw and reached inside with his other, and almost too fast to follow he had pulled something long and whip-like from around his waist and lashed out at the monster.
The Zezernak's previously ponderous movements gave way to a blur of activity, one massive claw reaching out and catching the whip before it could strike at the creature's eyes. The monster suddenly shrieked, and Eni could feel the terrible force of its cry vibrating her chest. The Zezernak pulled at the whip at the same moment that the stranger gave it a sharp tug, and suddenly the monster was missing half its claw.
The beast bellowed again, even louder than it had before, and lunged at the stranger so fast that for a single heart-stopping instant Eni was convinced that he had been caught and cut in half by the monster's intact claw. But before she was even entirely sure what had happened, the stranger rolled away from where the terrible claw had been, one of the creature's legs catching at his cloak and tearing it before he could rise again.
The Zezernak seemed to have gotten more cautious, lifting both its intact claw and its ruined one, which was dribbling more of that blackish blood and emitting a pungent smell like a rotting wound, to protect its head. It hissed at the stranger, clicks and chirps that didn't seem to intimidate him at all. The stranger raised his own head and barked at the monster, the fearless sound reverberating and echoing as he taunted it. The Zezernak side-stepped with the delicate grace of a dancer, coordinating its many legs with fearful synchronicity, before lunging again with the sharp point of the remains of its injured claw.
The stranger's whip lashed out again, cracking with how fast he moved it, and in the light of the moon Eni caught the impression of something metallic before it wrapped around the forward-most leg on the same side as the injured claw and pulled hard. There was a horribly wet tearing sound, like an ax going into a rotting tree stump, and then the leg simply fell off, filling the air with more of that choking pus-like smell as ichor oozed from the creature.
The Zezernak tried striking again with its claw as the stranger rolled away, and just as Eni was sure that this time the stranger would lose his head, a long and smooth tail emerged from under his cloak and deflected the blow.
Eni's eyes widened, and she didn't trust her first impression, looking desperately for the stranger's tail when he rose. She had been right the first time; his tail was unusually long and thick, muscular in a way utterly unlike any normal mammal. And, as he shifted again, repositioning himself against the monster, Eni saw his whip reflecting the moonlight again.
But it wasn't a whip.
It had a lengthy and flexible central segment, like any other whip. But set at regular intervals there were gleaming and bifurcated pieces of metal, their edges looking brutally sharp. Eni's breath caught again, but it wasn't out of fear. The stranger hadn't set it afire, but he was wielding what could only be Nidhogg.
And then, as Eni watched breathlessly, the stranger narrowly avoided another blow from the Zezernak and his hood slid off. As his head was revealed any doubts left her mind. He was the mammal she had been desperately searching for. He was the hero of legend who had vanished nearly a hundred years ago. He was the only predator who could fight monsters alone and come out on top.
He was the Slayer.
The Slayer wasn't as tall as Eni had expected; he had at most a head of height on her, and that was only if her ears weren't counted. His body was slim beneath his ragged clothes, but his neck was longer than a normal wolf's and thick with muscle. His fur looked to be entirely a glossy black, including a great shock of it that grew mane-like from the back of his head and disappeared under his collar, except for a bib of white the color of starlight on the underside of his muzzle. The Slayer's tail, at least, looked exactly how she had expected it to, thick at its base and tapering over its significant length to a fine tip.
The Slayer dodged another attack, backing slowly away from the Zezernak, which was heavily favoring its uninjured side. It crept after him in carefully controlled steps, never allowing him to set himself up again at the perfect distance for another strike with his whip. But the Slayer's face remained a mask of intense concentration, his eyes leaving the monster only briefly as he looked back and forth from it to the grain silo he was approaching.
At last, the Slayer had his back to the silo, and the beast froze, keeping its distance as he slowly maneuvered himself around the enormous cylinder of its base before reaching the single massive door. Without looking away from the Zezernak, he pushed it open with a shrill creak, motes of dust suddenly dancing in the moonlight as the interior of the silo was revealed.
With a surprising speed, the Slayer suddenly turned and dove into the silo, and the Zezernak seized its opportunity. It moved faster than Eni had seen it move yet, so fast that she was absolutely sure it had only been faking the seriousness of its injuries, and lunged at its much smaller opponent. The tip of one claw caught against the Slayer's back, but he had turned with an unthinking agility and squeezed right past the thing as he left the silo.
The Slayer turned and in one smooth motion cracked Nidhogg, which suddenly burst into flames with a white-orange intensity so bright that Eni threw up one paw to cover her dazzled eyes. But even watching between her fingers, she saw quite clearly as the fiery whip-sword swung into the silo at the rapidly turning Zezernak.
And then the silo exploded.
The concussion of it slammed Eni into the ground and deafened her for a moment, a high-pitched ringing all she could hear. The silo was simply gone, the circular stone foundation all that remained as flaming pieces of wood and burning bits of debris fell all around her. At the center of that stone circle the flames were the most brilliant, and Eni could only gape at the magic the Slayer had commanded. She had read of his greatest feats, and she had felt for herself the powerful tug of something weaker, but she had never imagined seeing such destructive force wielded with such ease.
As she watched, the Slayer stood up from where he had thrown himself to the ground, shaking his head as if to clear it. His cloak had caught fire in spots, but he didn't seem to notice, instead watching only the flames where the Zezernak burned. Its horrifically insect-like form was still a moment, the air foul with the stench of it burning, and then it suddenly tried lunging at the Slayer again.
The Zezernak was even more nightmarish as it burned, its carapace cracking and popping in the fire and revealing its irregular and unfathomable internal organs. One of its stalk eyes burst from the heat, but its remaining eyes fixed themselves hatefully on the Slayer as it rose from the flames. Before it could act, Nidhogg whipped through one of the monster's loathsome eyes and deep into its head, a tarry stream of ichor spurting out as it wailed its last breath and convulsed its horrible clicking mandibles.
As the thing died, the unnatural light going out of its remaining eyes, Eni felt something odd in the pit of her stomach. It was like putting one paw on a clothesline shaking in the breeze or watching drops of dew vibrate on a spider web in the light of early dawn, something that refused to be bound to any one sense. And then the monster shuddered for the last time and the feeling was gone.
Eni stood up before she realized she was going to, watching the monster's corpse burn in the fire pit that the silo had become. She stood there for a long moment, feeling as though she was in a dream, and took her first step toward the Slayer. He had shaken off his cloak and stomped out the fire consuming it, and then turned his focus to his whip sword. He was wiping a no-longer afire Nidhogg against the grass—which, Eni noticed, was yellowing and shriveling where the monster's blood had touched it—as Eni approached him hesitantly.
Her throat was suddenly dry; now that the moment she had dreamed of for so long was upon her Eni realized she had no idea what she should say. He didn't seem to be paying her any attention, more concerned with getting the horrible black ichor off his blade before winding it back around his waist.
"Master Slayer… sir?" Eni began hesitantly, her voice cracking.
She fell to one knee, bowing to the legendary hero, who seemed to take notice of her at last. He grunted as he turned around, and Eni's ears burned at having his attention on her. Up close, his features were as noble as she ever could have hoped, the lines of his muzzle regally sharp and the eyes above them a pale sky blue. Where the monster's attack had torn his clothes it had exposed a well-muscled chest without so much as an ounce of fat, and Eni forced her gaze down to the earth to show him the respect he was due.
"It's the greatest honor of my life to meet you, and I've been searching for you for a decade now, and I've finally met you and I watched you kill the Zezernak and—"
"Are you stupid, rabbit?" the Slayer suddenly interrupted, "Were you trying to get yourself killed?"
His voice was richly masculine, low and gravelly in pitch. Eni's gaze was drawn to his eyes, where something like annoyance seemed to be filling his features, and anything she might have said died in her throat as her mouth fell open.