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Chapter 03: Hound and Hare

Updated: Apr 14, 2023



"What?" Eni asked after a moment that seemed to take an eternity.


She couldn't believe what she had just heard. Eni had thought she would be prepared for anything when it came to actually meeting the Slayer. She had learned to speak Jarku in case he would be more fluent in it than Circi, and even gone to the trouble of learning Gangurr on the off chance the legendary wolf wasn't a wolf at all but rather a kangaroo. She had studied every single one of the stories about him, memorizing every detail. She had even practiced what she would say if the famed lady-killer took an interest in her.


But somehow, the idea that he'd be so rude had never crossed her mind.


"Are you deaf, then?" he snapped, "Or were you just running around panicking the way rabbits do?"


"I'm not a rabbit, I'm a hare," Eni said, feeling stupid even as she said the words and drew herself up to her full height.


He was still tall enough to look down at her and he did, his face curled in annoyance. "Then go away, hare," he said, and he turned away from her to face the burning corpse of the monster.




Although she couldn't see his face anymore the Slayer seemed to be focused intently on the remains of his foe, and Eni's mouth worked soundlessly as she tried to figure out what to do next. The Slayer suddenly spun back around to face her, bringing his face so close to hers that for an instant she had the crazy thought that he was going to kiss her.


"The theurgy's gone," he said, apropos of nothing, "Did you do it?"


"What?" Eni managed, "The theurgy?"


She recognized the word—years ago she had read a musty old tome of what the author claimed to be magic, describing theurgy as the magical equivalent of the sun's light and heat—but had no idea what the Slayer had meant by it. Besides, that particular book had been of absolutely no help; she had never been able to do any of the things it claimed to be possible and had set it aside. The Slayer simply ignored her confusion, snorting hard enough to make his nostrils flair.


"Of course a rabbit didn't," he muttered in a low voice, shaking his head as he leaned back, "You don't know anything about magic," he said, somewhat louder, and he turned away.


"Please, wait!" Eni begged, "That's why I want you to—"


"It's better to keep it that way," he interrupted, although he didn't turn around, "Forget you ever saw me and run off."


Eni could feel helpless tears welling up in her eyes, and she could do nothing to stop them.


"Please," she called again, "Please, I just want you to teach me."


Her words were thick, her tongue seeming numb in her mouth. There was so much more she wanted to say, that she wanted to convey, but the words just wouldn't come. The Slayer had no such problem, his response instant and laden with scorn.


"No. Hop along," he said, "Tell everyone you killed the monster and reap the glory, rabbit. Be a hero. But the Slayer's gone."


He didn't even spare her another glance before he started walking away toward the heart of Ctesiphon.


The strength ran out of Eni's legs and it was all she could do to stay standing, brilliant spots dancing in front of her eyes. Energy roiled painfully in Eni's chest, sending tingling waves through her limbs as a wordless muttering filled her ears. The tears in her eyes started streaming down Eni's cheeks, and she stared in mute horror at his retreating back, frozen in place.


"Please!" she shouted, and with a supreme force of effort managed a single step forward.


"Don't," he said, and the word seemed to freeze her insides even as they boiled with raw power.


He was going to disappear, she knew. Disappear and never be seen again. Not by anyone else. Not by her.

"Just hear me out!" Eni yelled, her throat raw, but he might as well have been deaf, not pausing in the slightest.


She had spent ten long years searching for the Slayer, and although she had never been a believer she chose to pray to the Mother every night in the vague hope of having her one desire granted. And when she finally found him, he wouldn't even spare her so much as a moment. The power rising in Eni's chest grew even as she heaved with her sobs, the roar in her ears growing more distinct and displeased, and when her words came out they were far louder than she would have thought herself capable.


"LISTEN!" Eni roared, and as she raised her paws in frustration the fire consuming what was left of the Zezernak did the same.


The flames burst higher, stretching twenty or more feet up into the sky, and exploded with an unnatural redness as vivid and monochromatic as blood. Fantastic shapes stretched through the flames, dazzling and vaguely geometric forms giving way to grasping and amorphous arms that stretched and grasped for the Slayer's back. The voice of the spirit in the fire was louder than Eni had ever heard them.


"Yes!" it cried rapturously, blotting everything else out and seeming to make Eni's entire body throb with the force of its joy, "Yes, I'll burn him for you!"


"No!" Eni cried, and she tried to reel the power inside her back in, but she might as well have tried hauling up a ship's anchor with her bare paws. It slipped through her grasp, blooming within her as it spread out and dove hungrily for the Slayer. The arms of flames bloomed branches, like some awful tree made of a mammal's limbs, and fiery fingers tipped with white-hot claws groped for the wolf.


For a heart-stopping instant she was sure he would be completely consumed, but at the last possible moment he threw himself to the ground, tumbling end over end as he rolled. The fire spirit howled in fury at its prey escaping, the burning digits sizzling against the charred earth before going out. Cracks and heaves marred the ground where it had split apart into narrow chasms, puddles of red-hot slag glowing and dripping where the tremendous heat had melted the ground into dirty glass. Heat shimmers distorted the air, which was suddenly thicker than ever and as hard to breathe as water.


"No," Eni said, her voice weaker than before and completely inaudible to her own ears above the spirit's protests.


She was panting with exertion, her limbs trembling with the force of the energy that had passed through her. It was stronger than it had ever been, so strong that for an instant it had felt like there was no division between her own body and the power that had forced its way out. But it was already growing weaker, the spirit's voice fading even as the flames sullenly retreated their way back to the burning corpse. Eni felt strangely diminished, but that was nothing compared to the icy claws that clutched at her heart. The Slayer was motionless on the ground and her eyes widened in horror; what had she done? But then he stirred, staggering to his feet, and in her relief Eni nearly collapsed. It seemed miraculous that he survived; the remains of the destroyed silo around him were simply gone.


"I'm sorry!" she cried, and there were fresh tears in her eyes, "Are you alright? I didn't mean to—"


Before she could finish the words, the Slayer spun around so fast she barely even saw him move, his whip sword cracking as it reached for her. She heard it whiz past her ear with a sound like the world's largest mosquito before wrapping suddenly around the pitchfork she realized she was still holding.


"Trying to kill me?" the Slayer asked.


His tone was weirdly conversational, as though he was completely unimpressed by nearly being burned alive.


"Do you think having magic makes you strong, rabbit?" he asked, "Does it make up for being so weak and helpless?"


Eni could feel that familiar pressure rising in her chest again, that same awful feeling that had first started in her adolescence and only grown stronger with each passing year. Her blood seemed to sing with it, to call out to be let free again. But when Eni spoke, it was with the words from her heart.


"No," Eni said, and she dropped the pitchfork.


It clattered to the ground, one end of the Slayer's whip sword still wrapped around the shaft, but she paid it no mind, taking a step closer to him. Maybe it was a foolish thing to do. Maybe he'd simply kill her after all. But maybe he'd actually trust her if she was honest.


"I am weak," she said, and once she started talking it was as though every fear she had started boiling out.


"I can't control it," she said, "I've hurt mammals before. Slavers who… who maybe deserved it, but I didn't mean to… to do what I did. I can slow it down, sometimes, but when it comes out I can't stop it. I'm afraid of it. I'm afraid I might do something I can never take back. And I thought… I've tried everything else and I thought that the Slayer would be the only one who could help me. That you could teach me to harness it. To use it to help mammals. That maybe it's why I have this power."


Eni stopped talking and caught her breath as she waited for the motionless wolf Aberrant considering her to say something. She had never laid out why she was questing after the Slayer, not even to her own parents or to the university Archivist. She had always presented it as a matter of historical curiosity, of finding and learning more about the mammal who had fought so long and hard to make the world safe to live in. Hearing her own motive, as baldly selfish as it was in her heart, felt almost like drawing a sliver out of her paw.


The Slayer didn't speak, his blue eyes seeming to dance with the light of the nearby flames. With a single swift motion he suddenly drew his whip sword back in, wrapping it around his waist and making it vanish under his tattered cloak.


"Magic can't help you," he said, "It… costs too much."


There seemed to be a world of meaning in his words that Eni could only see the surface of.


"Run off, rabbit," he said, and his words were somewhat kinder than before, "Run off and live alone. No time to train you."


"I could go with you," Eni blurted suddenly.


The Slayer cocked his head to the side, seeming to examine her more closely.


"If you're offering to fuck me, I'm not interested," he said flatly.


"I'm not—" Eni sputtered, feeling her ears flushing, "I don't—"


The wolf Aberrant had to be the strangest mammal she had ever spoken to, bluntly jumping from topic to topic and so incredibly rude he didn't even seem to realize it.


"I can help you," she managed at last, "You're looking for something, right? I'm good at finding things. I mean, I found you. Has anyone else done that in the last ninety-three years?"


Eni prayed to the Mother that she had in fact been the first as she waited for his answer, his head slowly rolling until it was cocked to the other side. The Slayer considered her a moment longer, roughly running his right paw through the thick shock of fur that made up his mane as he pushed it back somewhat.


"No," he said at last.


She waited, but he didn't say anything else. Hoping that his silence meant that he was considering her offer, Eni plunged onward.


"I have a job with the Library of Linrathrous," she said proudly, "I work directly for the Archivist."


Most mammals, even ones who had never stepped foot in Terregor, knew of the school there and its library, which was unmatched not just by any other collection in the Circle but by any collection in the entire known world. Saying that she worked for the prestigious university usually impressed even mammals who never read anything more than the most lurid true crime stories in the cheapest peril papers. The Slayer, however, didn't react at all, his eyes steady on hers as he waited for her to continue.


"I have access to hundreds of thousands of books," Eni boasted, "Even the rarest ones no other library has. You know, I found the only copy of—"


"Not looking for something in a book," the Slayer interrupted, but he didn't turn away.


"Then… You're looking for someone, right? Whoever's responsible for taking the… the theurgy of the monster you slayed?"


He nodded once. Feeling his attention start to falter, Eni took a desperate stab in the dark, based on nothing more than her best hunch. "A mage, right?" she asked, "You're looking for a mage here in Ctesiphon."


"I am," he said quietly, and Eni hoped that the glimmer in his eye was renewed interest in what she had to say.


"When I started looking for the Slayer—for you—I began tracing every wolf Aberrant I could find record of," Eni said, speaking as rapidly as she could, "See?"


She fumbled in her bag and withdrew her journal, flipping it open to the page that showed all the leads she had set for herself to follow up on in Ctesiphon. Most of the names had been crossed out, but she was pleased to see that "Fletcher Ceslaus" was in fact on her list. That she had only been able to associate a face with the name after meeting him was entirely beside the point, as was the fact that she knew virtually nothing about him since she hadn't started looking into him.


Eni brandished the book at the Slayer, tapping one finger against the name. He regarded the book impassively, saying nothing.


"And I met one here in Ctesiphon who has to be a mage. I could feel the magic in him. Fletcher Ceslaus. He's kind of lion-like. And he has a villa near—"


"He's the one I'm looking for," the Slayer interrupted.


"He is?" Eni asked, and then hastily added, "He is."


She was glad he had cut her off, as she had basically exhausted her knowledge about Ceslaus, and she couldn't hide her enthusiasm. "I can bring you to him," she said, "I know how to find his villa."


That was stretching the truth a little, but she figured that knowing its general location would make it an easy enough task. The Slayer simply grunted.


"We'll go see him when the gates open," he said, and he started walking back toward Ctesiphon.


After a few steps he paused, his long tail swishing from side to side, and turned back to face Eni.

"Are you coming or not?"


"I am!" Eni said, "Of course I am."


She jogged to catch up with him, finding a place by his side.


"Do you think there's a connection between the Blight and this monster?" Eni asked, hoping to impress.


"Don't believe in coincidences," he said, and he didn't speak again until they were back within the limits of the Vorstadt.


 

Once they were walking along one of Ctesiphon's more claustrophobic streets, the Slayer said, "I'm staying at the Ax in the Stump."


He hadn't looked at Eni as he spoke, continuing simply to walk the empty streets. Eni had managed to bite her tongue and hold in the dozens of questions she longed to ask him, afraid of setting him off, but at his words she couldn't help but say, "Do you mean the Ax and Stump?"


The Slayer shrugged expansively with his shoulders and tail, the distinction apparently meaningless to him.

"If that's what it's called," he said.


Eni couldn't stop the frown that crept onto her face; the Ax and Stump was only a few blocks away from the Three Apples Inn where her own room was, but the two inns couldn't have possibly been more different.


"Why are you staying there?" she asked, "It's so…"


There were too many words Eni could have possibly used to end her sentence, ones she knew perfectly well to be true from her own exploration of Ctesiphon. Shabby. Dirty. Violent.


"Small," she finished at last.


The Slayer turned and looked at her, his face blandly neutral.


"Don't need much space," he said, "And it's cheap."


The idea that the Slayer, legendary hero who every city large enough to deserve the title owed a tremendous debt, was tight-fisted with his money wasn't exactly surprising—there were quite a few stories speaking to his great modesty—but it was still difficult to believe any mammal would willingly take a room at the Ax and Stump.


That thought only seemed to solidify in Eni's mind when they arrived to where the inn should have been; it looked almost as bad as the silo the Slayer had destroyed. The building, which Eni recalled as being a ramshackle and ugly-looking pile of bricks and dirty plaster that almost inevitably had three or four mammals brawling in the mud outside the filthy front door, seemed to have been smashed apart.


The top floor of the three that made it up was listing at a crazed angle, and the brickwork of the first floor bulged outward in a dangerous way. All the windows were broken, glittering piles of glass gleaming up from the ever-present mud around the building, and through the gaping holes Eni could see that anything of value was simply gone.


The buildings on either side, a pawn shop and a bathhouse Eni was reasonably confident had been a brothel, were somehow in even sorrier shape; someone had ripped apart the bathhouse's walls to steal the pipes.


Eni simply stared at the thoroughly looted buildings for a moment, and then turned to look at the Slayer, who was regarding the mess impassively.


"You could spend the night at the Three Apples Inn," Eni offered, "It's much nicer."


She had, quite frankly, no intent of letting him out of her sight, but the Slayer shook his head.


"Can't," he said.


"Why not?"


"Didn't pay for a room there," he replied, and to Eni's ears he almost sounded vaguely puzzled, as though he thought she was being woefully obtuse.


"I did," Eni said, "You can stay in my room. You can have the bed; I don't mind."


The Slayer grunted in response, which Eni decided to take as him accepting her offer. At the very least, he started following her as she retraced her steps. At last the inn loomed out of the hazy smoke that still clung to the city, the light coming from the windows dimmer as candles and lanterns had gone out with no one to tend to them.


The common room was eerie in its emptiness, all the signs of how quickly it had been abandoned still evident. Half-eaten plates of food and half-full mugs were on the tables or spilled across the floor. A few chairs had been knocked over, one reduced nearly to kindling from the stampede of mammals leaving, and there was a large and pungently yeasty-smelling puddle behind the bar where the tap of a beer barrel had been left open.


The Slayer didn't seem bothered by the mess at all, and he waited patiently as Eni fumbled for the well-worn key she had been given when she had checked in.


"See?" she said, holding the tarnished piece of brass up for the wolf Aberrant's inspection, "I wasn't lying about having a room here."


She smiled to show she had been joking—he didn't seem to have much of a sense of humor, but if he did she wanted to take advantage of anything that would make him more likely to stick around—but the Slayer simply nodded.


"Knew you weren't," he said simply, "Didn't smell like you were lying."


Eni stared at him for a moment, and while he said no more the implication of his words flashed through her mind. She remembered how his nostrils had flared when he had first questioned her and an uneasy feeling crept into the pit of her stomach.


"How do you smell a lie?" Eni asked with more than a little trepidation but also greatly interested in hearing the answer.


He didn't answer, simply standing there looking around the room, and Eni pushed the question aside. She grabbed one of the lanterns that was still lit and led the way up the wide main staircase, its curved wooden railing polished to gleaming brightness by countless paws, and down the hall to the room she had rented.


As Eni unlocked the door and pushed it open, she tried to see it as the Slayer must. It was, in her mind, a rather unremarkable room, one of the smaller ones suited to a mammal her size.


There was a single thin window, the outside of it filthy from smoke even though the inside was well-polished, which Eni had never opened. A straw-stuffed mattress atop a slightly sagging wooden bed frame filled one end of the room, and in the narrow gap between the bed and the other wall was a small desk that couldn't have been more than two and a half feet across, a battered three-legged stool in front of it. A blandly utilitarian area rug, faded to a dull pink, covered most of the scratched wooden floorboards. The room's only other contents were Eni's travel bag, the thick fabric neatly patched in a few places where it had started wearing thin, a small stack of books she had left on the desk, and her trident, which leaned against one wall.


The Slayer didn't appear impressed or unimpressed by the room; he simply strode in as though he owned it and sat on the bed, which creaked a little under his weight. He seemed to pay attention to the ragged new tears in his clothes for the first time, poking one finger through a hole in his cloak nearly three inches long.

"Would you like me to patch your clothes?" Eni offered.


Humor hadn't worked, but maybe showing him that she could be useful in other ways—and she could feel herself flushing under her fur at the thought of the way he had assumed she was offering to demonstrate her usefulness—would.


"Fine," he said, after a long moment, rising to his feet.


"I think I've got something big enough to fit you if you—" Eni began, but she cut herself off as she spun away from the bed, her ears burning harder than ever as she clapped her paws over her eyes.


The Slayer had stripped off his clothes, so quickly that she hadn't realized he was about to until she caught the first bare glimpse of him. She had the impression of the white patch under his muzzle continuing on his chest in a shape like an upside-down arrowhead burned into her mind as she faced the door. Eni hadn't seen anything more, though, and eventually her heart slowed down as she heard the wolf Aberrant shuffling around on the bed.


"You're very modest," he said, his tone more observational than insulting.


"It wouldn't be right to look," she said tightly.


Part of her—professional curiosity, of course; she had the opportunity to finally settle the question of what the Slayer looked like sitting naked on a bed behind her—wanted to look, but she kept her eyes squeezed shut. Eni heard the rustle of sheets, and then the wolf Aberrant said, "Going to sleep."


Eni turned and took a chance, opening one eye a crack to see that the Slayer had nestled himself under the sheets of the bed, curled into a tight ball that made a tall lump and exposed nothing but the end of his tail and the tip of his nose. His clothes were in a pile by the floor, a jumbled mess of cloth and metal armor pieces next to the sturdy belts and bags that had circled his waist and tail. Even the whip-sword Nidhogg was on the floor, its coiled blades glittering in the light of the lantern.


Eni looked to the bed, watching the rise and fall of the sheets with the Slayer's slow and even breaths. He had apparently fallen asleep in an instant, and Eni tore her gaze away to look back at the pile of clothes he had left behind. She took a moment to rummage through her travel bag for her sewing kit, trying to do so as quietly as possible, and once she had it sat on the floor and pulled the Slayer's cloak into her lap.


Eni's nose twitched with excitement and she could feel a sort of tingle spreading through her body. It wasn't like the feeling when the power within her threatened to come out; there was nothing supernatural about it. It was, she knew, simply that after so long she was touching something that the Slayer had, something that was a part of how he presented himself to the world. It was the work of only a few minutes to repair the holes that the Zezernak had made, but Eni couldn't help but notice how many other times the Slayer's clothes had been patched. His trousers seemed almost to be more patches than original material, all in varying shades of gray. Whoever had repaired them before Eni was by no means bad at sewing, their stitches small and neat, but surely anyone else would have thrown it all away.


He needs new clothes.

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The thought suddenly popped into Eni's head, and she stared down at the pile in her lap, biting her lip as she mulled it over. Perhaps it would be something that he would appreciate, and moreover make him appreciate her. Besides, Eni thought as she started examining his current ragged outfit, No one's ever gotten the Slayer's exact measurements before.


She measured every part of his garments as carefully as she could, recording it all on a page of her journal, marveling the whole time that she was actually doing it. When she finished, Eni had no idea how late it was, but she didn't feel even the slightest bit tired. As she worked, Eni had kept glancing back at the sleeping form of the Slayer, reassuring herself that he was still there. He hadn't moved at all, but the idea of him slipping out and vanishing into the wider world seemed to grip at her thoughts.


Sleeping herself, then, simply wasn't an option.


Eni turned the page in her journal, dated it, and looked down at the otherwise blank whiteness. Her pen hesitated over the page; there was simply too much to write down. It didn't seem as though she could possibly summarize everything, or even know where to begin. She paused and listened for a moment, gathering her thoughts.




The sound of the Slayer's breathing was almost the only thing she could hear; with the Vorstadt evacuated the city had none of its usual sounds. The wind murmured, making the sign outside the inn flap gently, and the inn itself creaked and groaned ever so slightly as it settled. Her journey had started ten years ago, but perhaps it would also be fair to say that it had really started here, at this very inn, only a matter of hours ago.


And with that, Eni thought she knew what to do. Her hesitation faded as she put the tip of her pen to paper and began to write.














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