Eni didn't know much about meat but she knew what sort of mammal mutton came from.
Her gaze fell back down to the plate in front of her and her insides started churning as a horrible possibility occurred to her. It seemed possible that she had just found out what happened to Mirim's brother Loren, but if her host had kidnapped and murdered a thirteen-year-old he didn't seem particularly bothered by it. In fact, Ceslaus looked almost amused when she winced from the bloody mess on her plate back up at him, as though he was playing some sort of game.
"You… You've been…"
Eni's voice felt like it was coming from a great distance, and she didn't seem able to complete the awful thought. Ceslaus looked at her, an expression of mild surprise on his face, and laughed. It was as deep and rich as his voice, but it still made her skin crawl. "Did you think I had anything to do with those petty criminals the Chief Magistrate saw fit to execute?" he asked, and he smiled broadly as he cut off another bite of meat.
Ceslaus speared the little chunk with his fork and held it up, seeming to consider it. The meat glistened grotesquely in the light, the center an even pink. "I'm an anthropophagus, not a murderer," he said, "I must confess I'm a bit disappointed in you, Miss Siverets."
The wolf delicately placed his fork in his mouth, an almost thoughtful expression in his features as he chewed. Eni could do nothing but sit frozen, wondering if she could believe him. Ceslaus swallowed, the sound filling Eni's ears as she stared at him. He patted his lips with his napkin before setting it aside, looking Eni in the eyes. "But I suppose there aren't many carnivores in Siverets, are there?" he asked, his voice remaining light and casual, "Seeing what it means to be a manticore must be something of a shock."
"Ripper," the Slayer said abruptly.
Eni had almost forgotten that he was sitting there in her horror at Ceslaus's revelation, and she found herself supremely grateful for his presence even if what he said made absolutely no sense. The Slayer, she saw, hadn't so much as touched his fork or knife, his arms crossed on the table as he slouched somewhat in his chair. He had spoken indifferently, and although he was looking at Ceslaus it was with no particular interest Eni could see.
Ceslaus looked at the other wolf, a faintly puzzled look creasing his noble brow. "I beg your pardon?" he said, and while his tone was superficially polite there was a subtext to it that Eni knew very well from her days as a student.
It was the way a professor gave an unruly pupil the benefit of the doubt before squashing their thesis if it was as irrelevant as suspected, and when the Slayer remained silent Ceslaus continued. "That is the word the more… unlettered members of society use, yes," Ceslaus said, his eyes flicking up and down the ragged Aberrant with an expression somewhere between distaste and annoyance, "But anthropophagus or manticore are far less sensational, I feel."
The Slayer shrugged indifferently, and Ceslaus's muzzle crinkled almost imperceptibly. "I assure you, Miss Siverets," Ceslaus said, "This mutton came from a sheep who willingly sold his flesh rather than having it ripped away from him as your bodyguard so crudely suggested. It's the simple rule of the market: those who have something may set their price for parting with it. Those who wish to acquire it may attempt to negotiate. If both parties can come to an agreeable arrangement, the deal is struck and everyone is satisfied. It's a universal law, Miss Siverets, whether the good in question is flesh or potatoes or—"
"Information," Eni interrupted.
She had suddenly realized what Ceslaus was doing, and she chided herself for not having seen it sooner. She prided herself on being an excellent negotiator, which didn't seem immodest considering the shelves she had managed to fill for the university's collection of rare books. Every one of those books represented a victory for her, something she had made happen through more than simply emptying the university's coffers. Certain books had been easier to acquire than others, as when nobles rich in land but poor in everything else sold off the collections their more spendthrift ancestors had assembled, but most mammals who collected rare tomes were loath to part with them.
Ceslaus had wanted Eni to react poorly to seeing the meat; Eni had no doubt about that. He was trying to throw her off balance to maintain the advantage he wanted, much as Eni might pretend a particularly rare book was of only minor interest to her so as not to overpay for it. As the Archivist had once told her after she had accompanied him to a shabby used bookstore in Terregor and they had walked away with a volume of Mosthen's first folio for a mere thirteen obols, negotiation was quite simple at its heart. "Half of negotiation," he had said, "Is making sure they don't know how badly you want it."
When Eni had asked what the other half was, the Archivist had chuckled in that raspy way of his, the old markhor leaning heavily on his walking stick as he shuffled alongside her.
You're a clever young hare. You'll figure it out.
It hadn't made sense to Eni at the time, and she had turned the exchange over in her head for weeks without any success in figuring out what he meant. It wasn't until nearly a month later, while she had been negotiating without him at her side, that it had occurred to her why her boss hadn't simply told her what the other half was. It had been his little joke at the same time it was the truth: the other half of negotiating was making them desperately want whatever you held.
Ceslaus wanted something from her.
He was carefully judging her, too, even if she didn't know why yet. He wanted her confused and a little frightened and desperate so she'd agree to whatever it was he demanded. It was, however, his poor luck that they weren't having their conversation sooner, because there was now something that seemed to fill Eni's spine with steel and let her ignore the bloody mess on the plate in front of her entirely.
She had found the Slayer, and if she could do that, she could do anything.
Ceslaus had paused after Eni spoke to take a sip of his water, and she wondered if he could tell that she had seen through his game. "Including information, yes," he said mildly, cutting off another bite of meat as he spoke.
Eni ignored his paws and simply looked into his eyes as he spoke. "Let me be honest with you, then," Ceslaus said, and as he spoke Eni could almost hear the Archivist's voice in her ear.
Whenever a mammal says they're about to be honest with you, they're probably lying.
"I am a little curious as to how a hare from a backwater so meaningless it's not even listed in my atlas made her way to the Circle. I'm more curious as to why the Mother saw fit to give her such a powerful gift. But most of all, Miss Siverets, I'm very curious as to what you mean to do with that gift."
Ceslaus spread his paws wide, his handsome features set in a charming smile that lit up his eyes. "This can all be yours, if it's what you want. Power or money—which is really just a cruder kind of power—or whatever else it is your heart desires. I can teach you the secrets of the world itself, the secrets that those of use with the ability—with the power—to see beyond the mundane are the sole heirs to."
Ceslaus gestured slightly, and a door Eni hadn't noticed before, set into the wall behind Ceslaus next to the fireplace, noiselessly opened wide. The room was much smaller than the dining room, but it was far more interesting in Eni's mind. The walls Eni could see were lined with shelves covered with ancient tomes, tarnished gilding decorating their crumbling spines, and a large chalkboard with peculiar symbols scrawled upon it in a kind of pattern that Eni could feel must be present more so than she could actually see. At the center of the room was a large table, far more utilitarian than the one Eni sat at, covered with a complex and delicate-looking array of glass instruments filled with brilliantly colored liquids.
"If that interests you, of course," Ceslaus said, and he gestured again, the door closing as silently as it had opened.
Eni felt another stab of envy at the wolf's apparent easy mastery of magic, but when she chanced a glance at the Slayer he seemed utterly unimpressed. Ceslaus, apparently considering his point made, picked up his fork and knife again and carefully cut off another morsel, paying attention to his food with what struck Eni as feigned indifference.
Eni looked at the Slayer again, a bit less subtly, but he didn't react at all. He remained somewhat slouched in his chair, ignoring the plate before him, and his expression was perfectly blank. It seemed he was leaving things up to her, and Eni pushed aside thoughts of why that would be the case in order to consider her response carefully. "I do want to learn magic," Eni confessed, and Ceslaus nodded without looking up.
She considered telling Ceslaus that the Slayer suspected him of being somehow linked to the Blight and to the monster and decided against it. To her, it seemed to be revealing too much too soon, and she wanted to keep that option available to her. "I want to be able to help mammals," she said.
The silence that followed dragged on unnaturally, and Eni knew she was locked in a battle of wills with Ceslaus. Just when she was beginning to think that he was going to wait for her to speak again, he looked up at her. "Is that all?" he asked, "The power you hold can help save the world itself. Is that enough to help others?"
"Is that what you're doing?" Eni asked, and Ceslaus nodded.
"It is," he said, and Eni felt a chill at what he considered helping others.
"I'll make you a promise, Miss Siverets," he continued, "I give you my word that I will teach you everything I know about magic, if you'll have me as a teacher. I'll answer any questions you have, truthfully and to the fullest extent of my ability."
Eni considered him carefully, but he certainly sounded honest. Still, an uneasy feeling gnawed at the pit of her stomach. He seemed to have given in too easily; Ceslaus did not strike her as a pushover. She was sure he considered himself to still have the advantage, but she had no idea how. Even as he kept speaking, it felt as though a trap she could not see was closing around her. "Of course, that's a significant commitment," he said, almost purring the words, "So why don't we start with something simpler? I'll answer any one question you have—any question at all—if you'll do something for me to show you're capable of such a commitment."
He leaned across the table, nearly breathing his next words. "Just take a bite of the mutton."
Eni swallowed hard, her heart suddenly pounding in her ears. Just the thought of eating meat was as nauseating as the smell of it, which was surely what Ceslaus had intended. She glanced at the Slayer, but he remained impassive, looking ahead to where Ceslaus sat with no sign of interest in her internal conflict. Ceslaus was surely pressing her to show his dominance, trying to take advantage of her revulsion to eat meat when simply placing it before her hadn't done the trick. It was a tactic she had seen before, although never in such a fashion, and Eni knew what she had to do.
"Why have you been poisoning the countryside?" Eni asked.
Ceslaus froze for a moment, his fingers suddenly tightening around his cutlery, and then he laughed. "What—" he began, but Eni cut him off.
"That's the question I want you to answer," she said, "I know it's you. I just want to know why."
As she spoke, Eni picked up her own utensils and crudely hacked off a chunk of meat, spearing the resulting lopsided cube with her fork. She could feel the way it resisted ever so slightly, like it was still part of a living being, but didn't let it stop her. Eni brandished it at Ceslaus like some sort of bizarre totem, gesturing strongly enough to send tiny red droplets scattering across the pure white tablecloth.
"Very well, Miss Siverets," Ceslaus said, and his composure seemed absolute, "I did say I'd answer any question of yours."
He smiled slightly, but his visible fangs made it almost more of a snarl. "If, of course, you do what I ask."
As Eni brought the fork closer to her mouth, she wondered if she was making a terrible mistake. If Ceslaus really was responsible for the Blight, and the countless deaths that it had caused, poisoning a piece of meat he had set out for her didn't seem to be beyond him. Reassuring herself that he clearly wanted her alive for something wasn't much of a comfort, considering she had no idea how much longer he wanted her alive. Perhaps getting her into his villa had been his end goal and all he wanted now was to disable her somehow. But when she caught a glimpse of the Slayer out of the corner of her eye, her resolve seemed to tighten. He was making no effort whatsoever to stop her, and that would have to be good enough.
Eni's mouth felt oddly numb as she pushed the meat past her lips, but it wasn't the same kind of numbness she associated with taking a sip of strong alcohol or even with consuming a drop of the painkilling sap of the Chloroid in Siverets. It was, she knew, all in her head, as though her body was trying to spare her the sensations of doing something so wrong.
But her body couldn't spare her entirely.
The meat was still warm, and while the outside of the piece was somewhat rough the center she had exposed when she cut it off the larger piece was disconcertingly tender, her mouth immediately filling with the almost metallic-flavored juices. Eni desperately wanted to spit it out; the taste of it was awful but the very idea of it was even more revolting.
Ceslaus was still looking at her, though, and she made a show of chewing before swallowing as ostentatiously as she could. He seemed satisfied, nodding his regal head before speaking. "I did it because I had to, Miss Siverets," he said, "There are forces at play that you can't even guess at, but I assure you that they are quite real. There's a power in death just as much as there is a power in life. That piece of meat you just ate, for instance. It's not simply a matter of taste. It's a matter of a strength being there in meat, just waiting to be claimed. Every mammal has an essence to them, a sort of power that they emit."
He paused, swirling his glass for a moment before taking a sip, his eyes never leaving Eni's as he did so. "A theurgy," he said.
The Slayer's reaction was almost imperceptible, just an ever so slight straightening of his back. But Ceslaus must have noticed, because his gaze suddenly shifted to the wolf. "Ah," Ceslaus said, a slight smile coming to his face, "Not just a bodyguard after all."
Eni wasn't sure after the fact which one of the two of them acted first.
The Slayer exploded up from the table, knocking his chair over as he stood, his whip instantly in his paw and snapping toward Ceslaus so quickly that it all seemed to be one action. Ceslaus's head should have been gone, but he must have dodged at the last instant as he pushed himself away from the table. There was a slice through his fine clothing over his shoulder, penetrating multiple layers of fabric to leave a razor-thin cut in his flesh that started oozing a trickle of blood even as the Slayer snapped his whip back to prepare for a second attempt.
"Down, rabbit!" the Slayer bellowed, and Eni barely had time to obey the command before his whip-sword swung less than an inch above the surface of the table, passing parallel to the plates and shattering the crystal glasses, sending etched shards and cucumber-scented water flying everywhere.
He would have disemboweled her if she hadn't dropped in time, but the Slayer was already pressing forward by the time Eni got up, snatching up her trident as she popped above the top of the table. Ceslaus had a saber in his right paw, which he must have drawn from some hidden fold in his voluminous robes, and the engraved silver blade flashed in the light.
The Slayer's whip-sword was burning again, and the tablecloth had started smoldering where it wasn't wet. The finely woven rug underfoot was already crackling with fire, but neither combatant seemed to pay it the slightest mind. The Slayer lunged suddenly at Ceslaus, and the instant the taller and more powerfully built wolf started moving out of the way revealed it to be a feint. The tip of the whip-sword cracked in the opposite direction as the Slayer jerked his wrist and the weapon responded like a living thing, searing a deep gash through Ceslaus's left arm.
The smell of burning fur, stronger even than the smell of the rug and tablecloth going up in flames, filled the air as Ceslaus howled in pain, the flesh of his arm raw and pink in a serrated pattern. The fire in the fireplace behind the combatants seemed to flicker for an instant, as though the flames had vanished, but it must have been a trick of the light because the next instant it was back again.
"Who are you?" Ceslaus snarled as he was forced to leap backwards to avoid another swing from the Slayer.
The grim wolf ignored him, his ragged cloak fluttering around his body as he effortlessly wove back and forth, spoiling any attempt Ceslaus could make to strike with his much shorter weapon. There was a grace to the Slayer like nothing Eni had never seen before, not even when she had seen him in action against the Zezernak. He almost danced across the floor, his whip-sword moving constantly without any apparent effort.
Ceslaus was forced to continue retreating, and when he was just short of the wall Eni saw him make what should have been a fatal mistake. He raised his sword just a little too slowly, and had Eni been fighting him she knew she could have gotten under his blade and stabbed him in the heart with her trident. She expected the Slayer to do the same, but he didn't.
He sent his whip-sword straight toward Ceslaus's own saber, in what should have been an attack so clumsy that even a novice could have deflected it. It was like watching an actor in a play, deliberately aiming his own sword at his opponent's to avoid actually hurting them instead of making a true attack. But real fights were not like plays upon a stage, and as the Slayer closed the distance Eni was certain Ceslaus would take the advantage he had been so generously offered.
Eni's heart filled with dread as she lifted her trident and started rushing forward, knowing she would be too late to do anything but avenge the Slayer. But Eni didn't have time to take more than a single step, the heat of the flaming rug against her feet barely registering, before she saw something that should have been impossible.
The Slayer's whip-sword had passed through Ceslaus's saber.
It hadn't cleaved through the blade, which would have at least made sense even if it would have seemed unlikely considering how finely made the wolf's weapon was. It had instead traveled through the sword without the slightest bit of resistance, as though it wasn't even there.
The next instant the blade had vanished and Ceslaus's robes were a mess of gore, his eyes wide. He had enough time to reach out feebly with both paws, and Eni saw that the saber's blade hadn't disappeared at all; he was somehow holding it upside down without having ever rotated it in his fist. The sight barely had enough time to register in Eni's mind before Ceslaus simply collapsed, falling to the floor with a terrible finality.
"How…" Eni began, moving toward the Slayer with a slowness that was equal parts trying to avoid the burning spots on the floor as it was shock that his apparent mistake hadn't cost him his life.
"He took me seriously," the Slayer said, "Just not enough."
"But his sword!" Eni protested, and she had to fight the urge to reach out and grab the Slayer to prove to herself he was still alive.
"Illusion," the Slayer said, "A good one; not a great one. Same as the fireplace and the door."
The wolf jerked his head toward the wall that had the fireplace in it, and Eni was surprised to see that not only was the hearth dusty and bare, as though it hadn't been used in weeks, but there was no longer a door in the wall. Instead, although there was still an opening to the next room, it was a simple archway with no hardware visible where a door could have been hung.
Eni stared from Ceslaus's corpse to the wall and then back again, and then the pieces came together in her mind. "He was holding his sword upside-down," Eni said slowly, "With an illusion to make it seem like he wasn't?"
The Slayer nodded as he wound his whip-sword back around his waist. "But how could you—" Eni began, but he cut her off.
"No heat from the fire," he said simply, "And no sound from the door opening."
"Oh," Eni said; she couldn't seem to think of anything else to say.
"Need to leave," the Slayer said, looking around the burning room.
Eni spared a brief glance, seeing what he must have seen—the rug, table, and some of the wall hangings were all burning merrily and the dining room was noticeably warmer—before looking back to the room that had been hidden.
"Not before we look in there," Eni said firmly, pointing with her trident, "Don't you want to know why he created the Blight? He might have left clues behind."
The Slayer didn't say anything, but he didn't leave for the door they had entered through. Instead, he walked toward the formerly hidden room, and as Eni did the same she realized that there must have been an illusion over its contents as well. The rows of bookshelves and the chalkboard were gone, exposing simple walls of bare stone, and while there was still a table its contents were far less impressive. A haphazard array of scratched glass vessels and tubing did cover a portion of it, but the contents were a sinister black rather than brightly colored and looked nearly as thick as tar.
Something that hadn't been visible before, however, was what looked incongruously similar to a lectern from one of the university's classrooms with a single book resting upon it. On the otherwise plain cover, a title had been inked in perfect calligraphy.
"The Lamentations of Nergora," Eni read aloud off the plain cover.
The flames lapping hungrily outside the hidden room crackled noisily as Eni reached for it, as though urging her to hurry, but when she picked it up the small volume felt disappointingly unremarkable. "I've never heard of this book before, have you?" she asked, looking to the wolf.
The Slayer shook his head, apparently uninterested, but Eni examined it more closely. Eni was an expert in old books, but she wasn't too surprised to find a book she had never heard of; as the Archivist was fond of saying history was long and the lives of mammals were short. That was assuming, of course, that it was an ancient tome; for all she knew it might have been printed fairly recently. It did seem to be in excellent condition, but when she flipped it open she saw something much more unusual than an unfamiliar book.
She couldn't read the contents.
Contrary to the title on the cover, the pages had obviously come off a printing press from the quality and the regularity of the text. If, that is, it was text; the symbols that filled the book's pages were utterly alien to her, completely unlike anything she had ever seen before. "I've never seen this language," she said, and then something occurred to her.
Eni eagerly shoved the book under the Slayer's nose. "Can you read this?"
The Slayer considered the book for a moment, even taking it out of her paws, rotating it, and examining it again before shaking his head. "No," he said at last.
Eni started flipping through the book again, but each page was just as filled with strange symbols as the last. Toward the end, there was a folded slip of paper tucked between the pages, and just as she was about to pull it loose the Slayer grabbed her paw. "Not going to die in a fire," he said firmly, "Need to leave."
Eni reluctantly closed the book, dying to see what had been written on the page, but as she followed the Slayer back into the dining room she had to admit he had a point. The room had become sweltering as everything flammable burned with alarming speed, and the floor was painfully hot as they fled. By the time they had made it out the front door, the villa's upper floors were ablaze, consuming the roof.
Eni clutched the stolen book tightly to her chest, wishing that there had been more time to question Ceslaus and to look around, but she supposed she'd have to be satisfied with what they had gotten. If the Slayer was disappointed, though, it didn't show on his face. He turned to her as they ran toward the gate and began to speak. "Need to be gone before the guard—" he began to say, but he never got the chance to finish.
There was a concussive wave of force accompanied by a searing heat coming from behind them that knocked Eni off her feet and sent her flying to the ground as a sound like the end of the world deafened her. Dazed, and with her ears ringing so loudly her head hurt Eni managed to flop over onto her back, looking back at where the villa had been.
It had exploded, collapsing into a heap that wasn't recognizable as anything mammals could have lived in. Flaming debris rained from the sky, fragments of pulverized stone pelting Eni as the dust caught the light. The flames rose higher, and for the briefest of moments Eni could have sworn that she saw a pair of eyes, each larger than her entire head and alive with an unsettling intensity, staring coldly down at her. When she blinked, the impression of eyes was gone, and Eni staggered to her feet, looking into the burning wreckage again. There was nothing there but rubble, and as the Slayer started jogging away from the ruins Eni forced herself to do the same.