Eni hadn't slept for so much as a minute after the Slayer had gone to bed himself. What had kept her awake hadn't been the fear of waking up and finding that everything had been an incredible dream, or even that the Slayer might slip away if she dozed off for so much as an instant. It was, quite simply, the burning desire to record as much as she possibly could.
Eni had worked feverishly throughout the night and into the pre-dawn hours, scouring her brains to remember every word that the Slayer had said, every action he had taken. Her journal, she realized, would no longer be simply her documentation of her search for the mammal of legend. It would be a direct account of meeting him, of traveling with him, and it would be of incalculable value to the antiquarians and historians who came after her.
If, that was, she did her job.
Eni had filled nearly a dozen pages with her neat and small writing, each character of Modern Circi perfectly formed for maximum legibility. Accompanying the words were her sketches; it was unfortunate that the Slayer had tucked himself away under the sheets of the bed and she didn't have a model to draw directly from, but she did as best she could from memory alone.
For Nidhogg, at least, she had no such obstacle to accurately capturing it, because it was still on the floor where it had remained ever since the Slayer dropped it. Although Eni desperately wished to touch the whip sword, she forced herself not to. She keenly remembered the story of foolish Dawachet, who thought to outdo Reynard the prince of thieves himself by stealing the Slayer's weapon only to be immolated when it sensed his unworthy paw grasping its hilt.
As Eni didn't want to risk ending up like that long-dead bat-eared fox, she only observed the whip-sword, lazily coiled around itself like some sort of metal snake. Most interestingly, it didn't quite match up with the descriptions of more reputable historians; the sword had a brutally sleek cross guard rather than a more traditionally elaborate one. The many blades along its length, as Eni had seen for herself, were just as capable of bursting into flame as the legends said, although on close inspection they were rather peculiar. Each of the bifurcated blades had a number of small holes, almost like pin pricks, along their edges, and the metal was slightly discolored around them.
Eni hadn't dared move the haft, even indirectly, but hidden along the curving underside she saw what almost looked like an elaborate mechanical fire starter. It had been rather puzzling; did the Slayer perhaps need an aid to call fire into being to light his sword? Or was she completely wrong and it served an entirely different purpose?
It was only one of the puzzles Eni desperately wished for an answer to; if the Slayer would tolerate her questions it felt as though she would never run out of them. But with him still asleep, his breathing slow and even, there was nothing she could do. Her pen finally scratched to a stop as she glanced out the grimy window. The view was of a sky so deeply purple it was nearly black hanging heavily over the dull grays of Ctesiphon; by Eni's best guess there were still nearly two hours until sunrise.
Eni rummaged through her stack of books on the Slayer, but none of them tempted her in the slightest. How could they when the actual Slayer was so close she could have touched him? Her entire little collection, which had kept her company on so many lonely nights, was suddenly worthless, the words that had once entranced her seeming completely flat. Sighing as she shoved the books aside, Eni's eyes wandered around her tiny room, trying to find something else to divert her attention while she waited for the Slayer to wake and explain their next destination. There wasn't much to look at, and her eyes almost instantly snapped on her trident leaning against a wall.
Eni picked it up carefully, feeling its perfect balance as she did so, having practiced with it so often that it felt like an extension of her arm. The trident was custom-made specifically for her, just as some unknown artisan must have made Nidhogg for the Slayer in a story she wished desperately to hear. As she held the trident, which she had almost never actually used for anything but training, Eni suddenly wondered what the Slayer would think of her skill.
She liked to think that he'd be impressed with how well she handled it, considering that she had first used a trident when she had been barely old enough to hold one and help fish. After she had left her home village behind and started seeking the Slayer, she had if anything gotten more diligent with her training, spending at least an hour a day with the weapon. For years as Eni traveled alone, crossing the empty stretches of land between cities, she had found some small comfort in her unchanging training routine, which she always did stripped down to her undergarments.
Her ears burned hot as she pictured what the Slayer would have thought if he saw her so scantily clad. Once her heart had slowed and her ears no longer felt as though they had burst into flame for what seemed like the dozenth time since meeting the Slayer, she took off just the armored panels at her waist and her heavy hood, gently setting them on the floor to avoid disturbing him.
As Eni smoothly moved through the forms she had practiced for years, her feet sliding noiselessly across the floorboards as she shifted from guard positions to attack postures and back, she couldn't resist fantasies about the Slayer teaching her to fight as he did. Imagining the end of her trident bursting into flame as the power within her yielded to her control, burning with the strength to kill monsters, made it hard to focus, her excitement to speak with the Slayer again bubbling up.
And then her paw slipped.
The prongs of her trident sank into the wall and Eni winced at the sound, which was horribly loud in the empty inn. She turned her head toward the bed even as she tried wrestling her weapon free of the soft wood it had become stuck in. For a moment, the Slayer didn't seem to have noticed, but then the lump under the sheets suddenly moved.
The very tip of his tail shot out and pulled the covers back marginally, revealing a pair of icy blue eyes. Eni watched those eyes shift from her to her trident, which she still hadn't managed to pull loose, and even without being able to see the rest of the Slayer's face got the horrible impression that he was amused.
But perhaps it was just her imagination, because when he spoke his tone was level and somewhat bland.
"Almost time to go," he said, "You ready?"
Or had there been a touch of sarcasm in his question? Eni hadn't expected the Slayer to be quite so difficult to read; in just about every story he was a mammal of intense and obvious emotion.
"I— Yes," Eni managed to say as she at last wrenched her trident out of the wall, stumbling back a few steps with the effort.
At least her ears hadn't started burning again, which was a small favor. Even when she had tried imagining the worst possible cases for what might happen when she met the Slayer, Eni had never anticipated the possibility of embarrassing herself in front of him over and over again. If the Slayer cared, though, there was no sign. Rather than responding with words, he simply sat up, unfolding himself from the tight ball he had spent the night curled into.
The sheets, mercifully, didn't drop below his waist, and Eni caught only a glimpse of his tautly muscled torso before she turned away, sure of what he would do next. As she had expected, she could hear the Slayer dressing himself from the neat pile of repaired clothing she had left by the bed, and only when the rustling had stopped did she turn back to face him.
Somehow, the overall impression was a little disappointing.
In the combined light of a lantern and the purplish pre-dawn glow coming in through the window, the Slayer was easier to see than he had been the night before, and there was simply no avoiding the fact that he looked like a vagrant. Even with his clothes as neatly patched and mended as Eni had been able to manage, they were still ragged and threadbare, faded to a dull gray. His few pieces of armor, although in slightly better condition than his clothes, were pitted and scratched, and when he wasn't moving weren't visible at all.
With his shirt off he had appeared lean, but with his voluminous cloak covering his body he seemed almost scrawny and underfed. The Slayer's features were all sharp, his face as free of padding as the rest of him, and even the fur of his short mane seemed to have naturally formed messy and irregular spiky clumps down the back of his neck.
"We'll leave now," he said, apparently oblivious to Eni's assessment of him, and he strode past her.
That, at least, was one aspect of his appearance that matched up to what she had imagined. He had, in a word, confidence. He might look like he was homeless, but he certainly didn't move like a mammal who had been beaten down by the world. There was an easy grace in his every step, his posture perfectly upright and as proud as the noblest lord Eni had ever seen passing by. He also didn't seem to particularly care whether or not Eni was going with him, because he didn't even pause to see if she was following. Eni hastily threw the books from the small table into her traveling bag, hefted it onto her back, and then grabbed her trident and scrambled after him, catching up halfway down the stairs.
"Did you want something to eat, Master Slayer?" Eni asked as they passed the abandoned tables on the inn's first floor, half-eaten meals and mugs of flat beer still covering some of them as they had the night before.
It occurred to her that she should have thought about it the night before; she did have food in her bag but it was all intended for the road and wasn't particularly appetizing. Then again, perhaps the Slayer didn't need to eat. Some stories claimed as much, but considering that she had seen for herself that he required sleep, Eni wasn't sure how much faith she'd put in them.
The Slayer didn't help matters any, either, simply saying "No," without turning around.
Only once they were outside the inn did he actually pay any kind of attention to her, and he was bluntly to the point.
"Where's Ceslaus?" he asked.
"Near the Sovereign Gates," Eni said, trying to sound as confident as possible, "Do you know how to get there?"
"I do," he said, and he turned on his heel and set off in the right direction.
Eni followed him in silence for a moment before she couldn't help herself.
"Ceslaus has powerful magic, Master Slayer," she said, "He might be a challenging foe."
Without even intending to, Eni realized that her speech had slipped into the cadence of one of the dialogues from The Seven Labors. But why not? The Zezernak certainly hadn't been nearly as fearsome as even the least of one of those terrible monsters, but there was something about what the Slayer was setting out to do that seemed to be worthy of such grandiose language. Everything she was about to be witness to would need to be recorded for the sake of posterity, and Eni was determined to get it all right.
"Maybe," the Slayer said, agreeably enough, and after a moment added, "Doubt it."
There was that confidence again, and she envied. Eni didn't think of herself as a pushover—she had certainly heard plenty of mammals telling her to give up her quest without ever doing so—but she didn't think she could ever be so casual in the face of danger.
"He can control fire," Eni warned, "Maybe as well as you did against the Zezernak."
For the first time as they walked together, the Slayer turned to look at her, arching one eyebrow.
"Didn't use magic," he said.
Eni actually stumbled over her feet at his words.
"But— But—" she stammered, even as the Slayer stopped walking and kept watching her.
"You must have," she protested, "I saw you make that silo explode. I saw you ignite Nidhogg. I saw you kill a monster, for the Mother's sake!"
"Didn't use magic," he repeated.
"Then how—" Eni began, but the Slayer cut her off.
"Silo was full of dust," he said, "Dust explodes with the smallest spark."
Eni could only stare at him, her mind reeling. It had seemed so obvious that he must have used magic to slay the monster, but he was stubbornly denying it to her face.
"No magic to the sword either," he said, "Anyone can make it burn."
With the same incredible speed he had shown the previous night, the Slayer had the hilt of Nidhogg in his paw again before he casually tossed it to her. Eni's eyes widened and she nearly dropped the whip sword in shock, her fingers suddenly clumsy with her surprise. She just barely managed to catch it; the weapon was surprisingly heavy and she couldn't imagine how strong the Slayer had to be to wield it so delicately.
"Turn the base of the hilt, and then spin that wheel with your thumb and hit the button," he said, "It'll burn."
Eni could barely believe that he was trusting her with his legendary weapon, and some small part of her expected to die as Dawachet the Fool had even as she followed the Slayer's instructions. Although most of the whip-sword had coiled on the ground near her feet, the Slayer was absolutely right about the weapon. Each bladed segment did indeed catch fire, jets of it coming out of the small nozzles set along their edges.
"It really isn't magic," Eni whispered, looking down at the fiery whip-sword.
"That's what I said," the Slayer replied, and he reached out and pulled the hilt from her unresisting paw.
He twisted the base of the weapon—which was, Eni realized, a valve of some sort—and the flames died out. When it was wrapped around his waist again he kept walking in the direction of the Altstadt and Eni followed, the buildings they passed barely registering in her mind.
The Slayer didn't use magic.
The words seemed to pound through her mind, over and over again, and she was staggered by the implication. Did the Slayer simply choose not to? Was it that the Zezernak had been too weak for him to bother? Or—
"Can you actually use magic?" Eni blurted, the words out before she could stop them.
The Slayer didn't answer for a moment that seemed to stretch out into eternity, and he didn't turn to face her again either. Just when Eni was beginning to think that he wouldn't answer, he finally did.
At his words, Eni realized how foolish her question had been; he had certainly seemed to feel the same thing when the Zezernak died that she had, and if that wasn't magic she didn't know what was.
"Magic is dangerous," he continued, "No one should use it. I… hunt the ones who do."
A chill spread up Eni's back at that. There was no anger or hatred or bloodlust in what he had said, but the coldness of his statement was somehow more frightening than any or all of those would have been.
"And you're sure Ceslaus is responsible for the Blight and taking the… theurgy of the Zezernak?" Eni asked, pronouncing the unusual word as precisely as she could.
"Won't act until I am," he said, and Eni could feel a fraction of a tension she hadn't realized she was carrying ease.
She felt a stab of shame; of course she should have known that the Slayer wouldn't go around murdering innocents. But there had been something scary about him for an instant, and it was more than a little relieving to hear him say as much.
"What made you suspect Ceslaus?" Eni asked, hoping to get some insight into how the Slayer thought.
"He's visited the outer reaches of Ctesiphon," the Slayer said, and Eni grasped what he meant.
If someone was deliberately spreading the Blight, the way a farmer might spread pawfuls of seeds into their fields, it only stood to reason that they must have traveled the length of the farmland surrounding the city to do so.
"Not the only suspect; followed a few others already. But now I know he might be a mage."
"He is a mage," Eni said, "I saw him use magic. I could feel the magic in him."
The Slayer grunted dismissively. "Doesn't make him a mage," he said.
"So what'll you do when we get to his villa?" Eni asked.
"Start with a few questions," the Slayer said, "What happens next depends on how he answers."
That terrible coldness had crept back into his voice, and Eni felt her urge to ask questions dim.
The sun was just starting to peer over the wall that divided the Altstadt from the Vorstadt as Eni and the Slayer reached it, having passed the rest of the journey in silence. Eni had always enjoyed seeing the old bas-relief carvings, some of which were weathered almost to the point of illegibility, that covered almost every visible inch of the wall. There was just something about them that appealed to her sense of history, that gave a sort of weight to the long years that had passed since Ctesiphon's founding. Sometimes she had wondered if the long-dead soldiers immortalized in stone could have ever dreamed of how their humble guard outpost could grow and spread, and what they would think if they could see Ctesiphon as it was.
But Eni could hardly see any of the carvings.
All sorts of bills and posters had been plastered to a height of nearly twelve feet up, covering the engraved mammals and the flowery archaic text, and none of them were pleasant. There were advertisements promising to get mammals citizenship in the Circle at truly exorbitant prices, some subtly implying that to stay in Ctesiphon would be to die.
There were calls for workers to enter into indentured servitude that involved outrageously dangerous and backbreaking work. But most of all, there were signs of mammals trying to find their loved ones.
Some of those posters included drawings, but most did not, offering only descriptions and where they had last been seen. It suddenly struck Eni like a blow to the stomach that Ctesiphon was a dying city, that mammals had been so desperate to leave that they had taken off without bothering to tell anyone. But as she and the Slayer got closer to the gate into the Aldstadt, another more terrible sight presented itself and Eni realized why they hadn't passed anyone returning to their homes in the Vorstadt.
There, just beyond the gate, was a large public square blocked by a loose phalanx of guards armed only with spears and dressed in a motley assortment of thin armor. Through the gaps between the guards' bodies Eni could see that it was absolutely packed with mammals standing shoulder to shoulder. Class differences were totally forgotten as the rich in their colorful clothes and the poor dressed just as raggedly as the Slayer raptly paid attention to a set of gallows looming above even the tallest mammals.
The guards, the shortest of whom still towered over Eni, unevenly filled the massive opening in the wall, all but two of them facing the crowd. As she and her silent companion approached, the burly moose and hulking buffalo watching the entryway hastily straightened, their bored expressions rapidly becoming sharper. With some effort, the two guards nudged their fellows into making a narrow and irregular opening. As Eni and the Slayer walked through the gap in a single file, the other sentries were too focused on the spectacle beyond them to pay them any other attention.
On a platform above the crowd were a wolf and two coyotes who were bound and gagged with nooses around each of their necks and standing atop trapdoors. The magistrate presiding over the execution, a pudgy boar with a reedy but still sonorous voice, was loudly reading the charges from a sheet of paper he clutched tightly. No one so much as whispered as they listened to his words, but Eni could feel the crowd's excitement at the event they were about to witness.
"You have been found guilty by the Chief Magistrate of the following crimes: murder, with deliberate premeditation, of twelve free mammals of Ctesiphon; butchery, of those same twelve mammals; the unlawful sale of the comestible thews of those same twelve mammals; and last and most gravely of witchcraft to use the very flesh of those same twelve mammals in foul sorcery to poison our beloved city. The Chief Magistrate, in her wisdom, has sentenced you to hang from the neck until dead. May the Mother's mercy be reserved for the victims of your terrible crimes."
Eni glanced to her side at the Slayer, but he was ignoring the proceedings as he slowly pushed his way toward the other end of the square, taking no interest in the upcoming display of the city's justice system.
In that, at least, he seemed to be alone; Eni was unable to resist turning her head and watching even as she followed in the Slayer's wake and the noise of the crowd had reached the point where it was hurting her ears. They grew louder and louder as the magistrate waddled with dignified slowness toward the lever that would end the criminals' lives. Although the audience was mostly prey mammals, the few predators mixed in seemed just as eager to see the butchers die; Eni passed an ox boosting a stoat atop his shoulders to give the more diminutive mammal a better view.
When the magistrate's hoof closed around the lever, the crowd hit a fever pitch of excitement, and the realization of what was about to happen seemed to hit the criminals too. The wolf squirmed frantically although he could not actually move himself so much as an inch off the trapdoor he had been forced to stand on, and his eyes rolled in his head, shining with tears. The taller of the two coyotes, a male, visibly trembled, but the shorter of the pair simply glared at the magistrate. She must have been gnawing at her gag, because it fell away and she screamed, producing a horrible ululating sound that carried even over the excitement of the crowd.
The magistrate paused, his fingers still around the lever, and the mob fell suddenly silent, apparently eager to hear what so heinous a criminal had to say for herself.
"Lies!" she shouted, "You've all been lied to! This was the Chief Magistrate's—"
"How dare you!" the boar who controlled her fate roared, cutting her off as his face flushed red beneath his short and bristly fur.
"—idea to sell meat!" the coyote continued, speaking louder and faster, "She's killing our city! She ordered us to—"
"Chief Magistrate Sulla has suffered as your victims' families have!" the magistrate bellowed over her.
"Then why has she abandoned—"
"Enough!" the magistrate screamed over her, flecks of spittle flying around his heavy jowls, "We will hear no more!"
The coyote barked out a defiant laugh and it was the last sound she ever made. The magistrate pulled the lever and that was all it took. The crowd's previous unease was completely forgotten as hundreds of voices roared their approval, watching the three carnivores kick for a moment as the trapdoors opened beneath them. In short order they stopped moving forever, their lifeless bodies swaying in the uncaring breeze.