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Chapter 07: Divulgence

Updated: May 11, 2023





It took nearly a block of running away for Eni to notice that there wasn't just a ringing in her ears.


Sounds were coming back to her slowly after the explosion had blotted out everything else, and as the high-pitched whine that filled her head gradually faded an alarm bell chiming over and over took its place. As Eni and the Slayer passed an alleyway, he reached out and yanked her arm, pulling her in after him.


"Can't be seen running from a fire," he hissed, his voice sounding as though it was coming from very far away, and he let go of her arm as suddenly as he had grabbed it.


Eni nodded, peering out of the alleyway and at the street beyond as her heart slowed. Mammals were starting to appear at the windows and doors of the elegant buildings that lined the wide thoroughfare, their faces a mixture of curiosity and fear. The clanging din of an approaching fire carriage wasn't nearly as unsettling as the alarm horn that had sounded the previous night, but it was still loud enough to painfully pierce the air.


A moment later Eni saw the fire carriage itself, pulled at breakneck speed by half-a-dozen horses. A massive squat cylinder of polished brass filled the back, three firefighters bracing themselves against it as the carriage jostled and bounced over every imperfection in the cobbled street. One of them was ringing a bell over and over again, the sound growing louder as the fire brigade passed within twenty feet of the alley, and then it started fading.


Some of the onlookers actually left their homes to watch the brightly-painted carriage disappear as it headed for the fiery ruins of Ceslaus's villa, but most of them simply vanished back inside, relief seeming to color their expressions. Eni couldn't blame them; fires were frightening and dangerous, but far more understandable than a monster attack or the Blight. So long as it wasn't their own homes at danger of burning down, most mammals had no particular reason to care.


The Slayer, however, gave no sign of intending to leave the alley. His cold blue eyes were as wary as ever, as if he was expecting someone to suddenly call out to them and demand to know what they were doing. "This way," he beckoned at last, drawing Eni further down the alley and away from the street.


Eni followed him, at first minding where she set her feet, but unlike the alleys in the poorer parts of Ctesiphon there was no rotting garbage spilling across their path; everything was neatly contained in tightly-closed bins. As they went further in, the Slayer almost vanished into the increasing gloom, his tattered gray cloak making him increasingly difficult to make out against the rough brick walls that only rarely saw sunlight. He was making turns seemingly at random at each narrow intersection they came across, but at last they emerged into the light of day in a quiet middle-class neighborhood on a street that barely went a hundred feet before turning sharply.


With brilliant sunlight streaming down on them once again, Eni couldn't resist the urge to take another look at the book she still carried. Somewhat embarrassingly, considering her profession, she had squeezed it so tightly that the cover bore slight depressions. Still, looking at the book and its peculiar title seemed to vividly pull her back to the awful reality of what had happened in Ceslaus's dining room.


"Put that away," the Slayer said, seeing where her eyes had drifted, and Eni reluctantly stowed The Lamentations of Nergora in her bag.


He seemed completely unperturbed by what they had just gone through, his lean frame utterly devoid of tension, but Eni couldn't say the same for herself and she didn't know why. It wasn't the first time she had watched a mammal die; Ceslaus hadn't even been the first that day, thanks to the execution of the coyote and her co-conspirators. But the way Ceslaus had fallen, surprise and disbelief mingling on his face, gave Eni a painful reminder of the first mammals she had ever seen die.


The slavers.


Neither one of them had strongly resembled Ceslaus even though they had also been wolves, but that expression of horrified discovery that they didn't have the upper paw they thought they did had been the same.


"Why did you kill him?" Eni blurted, the words passing her lips before she realized she was going to say them.


The Slayer didn't consider the question for so much as a moment before answering. "He was trying to kill me," he said in a low voice, as though it should have been answer enough.


But it wasn't.


"But you were always going to kill him, weren't you?" Eni asked, "As long as you knew he was responsible for the Blight."


"I kill monsters," the Slayer said, repeating what he had said to her in the town square.


There seemed to be a wealth of meaning buried in those simple words. He didn't sound proud. He didn't sound regretful. It was almost as though he had resigned himself to whatever sort of life it was that he lived. "You…" Eni began, pausing a moment as she considered how to finish her question in the most tactful manner, "You hunt down mages who hurt mammals?"


It sounded pathetically childish to her own ears, like a story stripped of so much meaning and nuance in trying to condense it that there was nothing left. But it was still a relief to see the Slayer nod once, his expression not changing at all. Instantly Eni was filled with dozens of questions she wanted to ask him to fill in the details of his life from when he had vanished all those decades ago until the present. Before she could so much as try to ask, though, the Slayer spoke again.


"Ought to get inside," he said, his vividly blue eyes roaming up and down the street, "Someone might be watching."


So far as Eni could tell, he was simply being paranoid. There was no sign that she could see of anyone paying the two of them any kind of attention; the mammals they passed didn't seem to give them so much as a second glance. The Slayer might have stuck out among the villas of Ceslaus's neighborhood, but he wasn't much shabbier than most of the passersby. In fact, compared to a harried-looking mother goat Eni saw chasing after her children, the strings of her filthy apron streaming behind her, the Slayer looked almost positively well-groomed.


Eni had no intention of letting herself get separated from the Slayer, and so she followed him into a sleepy little tavern that was filled with the smell of a hearty vegetable stew bubbling away on a massive iron cauldron over the fireplace. Other than the tavern's owner, a pudgy beaver with a pinched face, and a group of four elderly pigs sitting near the fire quietly reading peril papers, they were alone. The beaver immediately brightened when the Slayer set an obol on the bar and gestured for drinks, and when the Slayer took a seat at one of the many empty tables, Eni grabbed the chair immediately across from him.


The Slayer had positioned himself so that he was facing the door, and as Eni watched his eyes slowly take in the room she wondered how differently he saw it from how she did. In her mind, the little tavern was quite cozy, every surface she could see made out of carved pine that had been waxed and polished to a buttery glow and still faintly filled the room with a fresh scent.


The wolf sat in contemplative silence until the tavern's owner bustled over with a tray on which he had balanced a teapot, two mugs, and a tiny ceramic jar of honey. Eni was briefly surprised that the beaver hadn't brought them mead or cider, but then remembered that, as difficult as it was to believe, it wasn't even mid-morning yet. The tavern would probably stay quite empty until lunch. Or possibly longer, because the proprietor had seemed eager for conversation as he placed the tray on the table. "Private guards, are you?" he asked brightly as he took in Eni's trident and the bits of armor the Slayer was wearing that were visible under his cloak.


The Slayer simply nodded, not seeming to really be listening to the beaver as he cheerfully babbled on. "Plenty of those jobs going around, I'm sure. I'd hire a guard myself, if I could afford it."


An anxious frown crossed the tavern owner's face before he brightened again. "But I'm sure all this nonsense will pass soon enough," he said, "You take care out there."


"We will," Eni said, eager for the beaver to move along, and after he fussed with the teapot and the mugs for so long Eni wasn't sure if he was an eavesdropper or simply extremely particular he finally did.


Eni found herself grateful that she was still wearing her hood, and that the beaver had seemed most interested in the Slayer; the last thing she had wanted would be for the usual uncomfortable nosiness that followed when mammals came to the erroneous conclusion that she was an Aberrant rabbit.


"So," the Slayer said at last.


He was slowly stirring honey into his tea; Eni noticed he used almost all of it before setting the little jar aside. "The book," he continued, "There was something in it?"


Eni eagerly dug The Lamentations of Nergora out of her rucksack and set it down on the table, flipping through page after page of incomprehensible symbols as the Slayer drank from his mug. Just as she was beginning to fear that the slip of paper had somehow fallen out of the book, she came across it. The Slayer made no motion to grab it, his eyes drifting up from the table to look around the tavern, and so Eni pulled it free and unfolded it, smoothing it out on the table's surface.


A number of mullioned windows, somewhat hazy with grit on the outside but neatly polished on the inside, let in enough sunlight to read by and softened it to a golden warmth. Eni had thought that the page might be written in the same peculiar symbols that the book itself had been written in, but it had not. Instead, the letter had several widely spaced lines of text far too neat and regular to have been written by a mammal; clearly a machine had been used to print the writing. Although the letters and numbers were in Modern Circi they were utter gibberish, each line of text a single unbroken string of characters with no apparent logic or pattern to them.


However, compared to the indecipherable printing that must have come off a typewriter, someone had apparently decoded the text, writing the meaning of each line beneath it in smooth block characters. The actual message was quite short, but Eni read it several times as she looked for hidden meaning:


PROVIDE STATUS UPDATE

RESPOND TO TORMURGHAST ONLY

SEQUENCE TWO FIVE SEVEN SEVEN NINE


Tormurghast, at least, was no mystery to her; it was the nearest city that was an actual part of the Circle rather than simply a gateway like Ctesiphon. She had traveled through it many times, but now Eni couldn't help but wonder what lurked beneath Tormurghast's surface that she had never noticed. She was still puzzling over the implications of the rest of the message when the Slayer interrupted her thoughts. "Read it out loud," he murmured quietly, and Eni realized he was still keeping careful watch around the tavern for any sign of someone trying to eavesdrop on them.


She spoke the words as softly as she could, hiding her lips behind her own steaming mug of tea. When she had finished, Eni quickly put the slip of paper back into The Lamentations of Nergora and then put the book back in her bag by her feet. "Do you know what it means?" Eni asked, trying to keep her voice low despite her excitement, "Ceslaus had a cipher engine!"


"What's a cipher engine?" the Slayer asked, sounding thoroughly unimpressed, and Eni suddenly wondered if he even knew what a typewriter was.


Both typewriters and cipher engines had been invented years after his disappearance, and she did her best to explain in a way she hoped wasn't condescending. "It's a kind of… A kind of machine that prints text. Each letter has a key you can press, and then the machine prints a letter on the page. But the cipher engine lets you set a sequence before you start using it so it can scramble your message. And then someone else with a cipher engine can set that same sequence, and if they type in your scrambled message they can see what it actually said. But if you don't have the code sequence, no one can read it."


"Ah," the Slayer said, "Explains the numbers."


He took another slow sip of his tea, steam billowing up and around his muzzle as he did, his every motion unhurried. Eni, however, felt the same familiar sense of enthusiasm she knew very well from her days of trying to find the Slayer, that sense of an intuitive leap that suddenly put everything in context. "Ceslaus wasn't just working with someone," she said, fighting to make sure she didn't start talking too loudly, "He must have had an entire organization behind him to be using cipher engines to pass messages back and forth. And the way the letter said to respond to Tormurghast only… There must be others out there."


Another thought occurred to Eni as she spoke, a vivid memory of those awful eyes that had seemed to appear for the briefest of moments in the fire flashing through her mind. She dropped her voice lower and hissed, "There must have been others here in Ctesiphon helping him."


Again, the Slayer seemed unconcerned. "Likely," he said.


He didn't say anything else, but Eni couldn't bear the silence. "We have to find them," she said, "We can get more answers, figure out why this group was poisoning Ctesiphon. Ceslaus said he was saving the world but—"


"I'm going to Tormurghast," the Slayer interrupted, "That's where the orders are coming from."


"But Ctesiphon is dying!" Eni protested, and she couldn't help but speak more loudly than she had meant to.


She glanced around the nearly empty tavern before continuing, but no one seemed to have noticed her outburst. "And it might not just be the Blight," she continued, more quietly but just as intensely, "All of the mammals who have disappeared… Ceslaus only said he had nothing to do with that coyote. What if this group is behind that too?"


The idea of a secret society being responsible for Ctesiphon's problems was more disturbing to Eni than any other possibility, because it meant that there was some kind of intelligence behind it. A group of mammals must have come to a decision to deliberately make Ctesiphon suffer, and it had to be in the service of some broader goal Eni couldn't even guess at. Maybe they were allied with, or even a part of, the Horns or the Jaws, plotting against the Circle to take it down without a war. Maybe they had some even broader or more sinister goal. But whatever it was, Eni couldn't sit by and let it happen.


"What if…" Eni said, lowering her voice to just above a whisper, "What if another monster attacks?"


She didn't want to imagine how the city would fare with the Slayer gone, but his face remained stony.


"Ctesiphon's already lost," the wolf said, "It'll fall. Maybe a monster or the Blight. But nothing's happened in Tormurghast yet."


The steam from his mug made his features softer and dreamlike, but it couldn't hide the harsh edge to his words. "If we stay we could save thousands of lives," Eni said, her voice sounding weak to her own ears.


"You can stay here and try if you want," he said, looking her dead in the eyes, "But I'm leaving."


"I thought you killed monsters," Eni said, a bitter tone creeping into her words.


The Slayer gave no answer, drinking slowly, and a terrible silence stretched between them Eni didn't know how to fill.


"Duke Ulfur's son," he said abruptly, and with a surprising delicacy the Slayer placed his nearly empty mug down onto the table.


Eni wasn't sure what he was getting at, but before she had a chance to ask the Slayer spoke again. "You mentioned him earlier. Said I found him."


Eni could hardly have forgotten it, the memory of her disappointment in the Slayer still fresh. She couldn't tell what the Slayer thought, his face still an unreadable mask, and it took more courage than Eni would have guessed to ask the obvious question. "Did you really?" she said.


"I did," the wolf said, and the small twinge of relief that passed through her didn't last long because he kept speaking.


"Know what it cost?" he asked.


"No," Eni said, and a cold numbness seemed to slip through her body at the look in his eyes.


There was an awful hardness to his face unlike anything Eni had ever seen, and the air between them felt charged as though lightning was on its way, growing stronger as he continued. "Was in Carcosa," the Slayer said, and each word seemed to cost him a significant effort, as though he was dredging up the memory from a great depth, "I remember that. A few small monsters harassing the city. Nothing the militia couldn't have handled, but…"


He shrugged, the movement of his lean body nearly invisible under his tattered and threadbare cloak. "But it was always safer for me to fight the monsters in those days. Fewer widows. Fewer orphans. Especially when they turned out not to be so small after all."


His eyes seemed to have turned entirely inwards even though his gaze hadn't left Eni's face. "Should have left after the last one. But there were some… bandits or hired thugs. Don't remember anymore."


Eni could have told him what history had recorded; Duke Ulfur's son had been kidnapped by mercenaries hired by the duke's younger brother, who had been plotting to seize power himself. But even though Eni could practically see the lines of text in the books she had read, no words seemed ready to pass her tongue. Her mouth was suddenly dry and felt as though it had been glued shut, and the entire world outside the Slayer had ceased to matter.


There were only the two of them at their table, and everything beyond that might as well have been an inky void. Every sound but the Slayer's voice had faded, and her sight had taken on an unnatural sharpness. A loose thread on the hem of his cloak stood out like a flag, and the way the light played across his fur as his head moved ever so slightly with each breath struck her as more real than anything she had ever seen before.


"They kidnapped the cub in the chaos," the Slayer continued slowly, "The Duke begged me to find his son, and so I did. Took me three days, but I did."


He was explaining his heroism as though it were a confession, and he stayed silent a moment, running one finger along the lip of his mug. "And so I set off for Drispas after reuniting Ulfur with his son, three days after I should have."


The wolf's face was skull-like, weariness etched into every feature, and Eni nearly recoiled from him. "There wasn't a city anymore, though. The Hydra had leveled Drispas," he said, and the Slayer's eyes drifted down to his mug.


When he looked up again, Eni could feel something radiating off him like heat from a kettle; it was almost like when she had touched Ceslaus, but the raw power inside the Slayer was like the ocean compared to a raindrop. "Ten thousand mammals died because I stopped to save one," he said, his jaw grimly set, "Not going to happen again."


It hadn't been like that. Eni wanted to say it, but she was still frozen. None of the history books blamed the Slayer for the destruction of Drispas, but how could they? No one could have foreseen that the Hydra would have struck when it did. Eni wanted to tell the Slayer that he was being too hard on himself, that he was assigning blame where he had none. But nothing came to her, and the moment stretched out without losing so much as an ounce of its terrible strength.


Even as the Slayer finished the last of his tea he was still more real than anything she had ever seen before. "Arhelius," Eni said, suddenly finding her voice.


She had surprised herself by talking, but she could no longer bear the horrible power of the Slayer's words and that emotion she was sure she was not imagining there.


Shame.


"Duke Ulfur's son. His name was Arhelius. He grew up to be the greatest duke Carcosa ever had," Eni said, the words suddenly rushing out as she attempted to break the terrible feeling between them.


She knew her defense was feeble, but Eni couldn't think of anything else. History had always been her refuge, but facts no longer seemed to be the respite that they had once been. The Slayer looked just as unimpressed as she herself felt, because his face remained harshly grim. "Ten thousand mammals paid for Arhelius with their lives," the Slayer said, and he stood up abruptly.


The tension in the air had vanished as quickly as a summer storm, and the Slayer's face was emotionless once more. "I'm going to Tormurghast now," he said, "You can come with. Or you can stay here. I don't care either way, rabbit."


Eni was on her feet almost before she knew it, but if the Slayer was impressed with the speed of her decision he gave no sign. He headed straight for the door, his cloak swirling around him. Eni grabbed her bag and followed him as he strode into the light of day, trying to banish her lingering doubts. Maybe the Slayer was right, and there was nothing more that could be done for Ctesiphon. But as Eni hurried after the silent wolf, heading for the gate that separated Ctesiphon from the Circle, it occurred to her that the Slayer's story could be taken another way.


It proved that he didn't always make the right decision.


Thinking of it that way gave Eni such an uneasy feeling that she tried to think of anything else. But no matter what she did, the feeling refused to go away, and even the Slayer's presence in front of her was no longer quite as comforting.






















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