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Chapter 08: We, the Unbroken

Updated: May 18, 2023



The weight of feeling responsible for the loss of an entire town was beyond her ability to imagine, but even that didn't seem to be everything. She had the nagging sense that there were more burdens weighing the Slayer down. How many other losses did he alone blame himself for? How many times had he arrived at a scene of devastation where a village had once stood, too late to make a difference? How could she, a mere antiquarian who had never done anything noteworthy, possibly offer him ease?

As they covered the blocks Eni found herself with nothing to say. No matter how she tried coming up with the perfect expression of sympathy and understanding, no matter how much she scoured her memory of old books for words of comfort, nothing fit. Anything she could say to him seemed hopelessly feeble, worse even than her first attempt.

Perhaps that was even part of the reason he was so harsh with her. He was surely just as short with everyone, because no one else could begin to imagine how he felt. As the Slayer slipped past a weary-looking gazelle pushing a cart half-full of withered heads of lettuce, stepping to the side with an effortless grace, Eni tried to tell herself that things would get better. Maybe she couldn't think of the right thing to say now, but she was still travelling with him. There would be other opportunities, she reminded herself firmly, and she sneaked a glance at the Slayer's face when she caught up to him at what currently passed for a busy intersection in Ctesiphon.

His features were blandly neutral again, his eyes seemingly focused only on the few dust-caked wagons creaking and groaning as they bounced over the cobblestone street. The Slayer was in motion the instant there was a gap, and Eni was struck once more by the grace with which he moved. It was almost as though he was seeing a few seconds into the future, he timed his movements so perfectly to make it through the traffic.

Eni did not.

Her rucksack banged painfully against her back as she had to jump suddenly to the side when a cart veered slightly off course over the rough street, and when she was nearly to the other side she almost had to break into a sprint to avoid getting hit by another she hadn't seen turning. "How did you do that?" Eni said as she caught up to the Slayer again, the words out of her mouth before she realized she was going to speak.

She winced immediately; of all the possible ways she could have tried to start a new conversation that had to have been among the worst. Eni could feel the Slayer's cold blue eyes upon her as he glanced at her, cocking his head to the side. "Do what? Cross the street?" he said.

Eni's ears began burning with the embarrassment of having asked something so foolish and she fumbled for words. "The… The way you move…" Eni began, gesturing vaguely, and to her immense relief he seemed to understand.

"Practice," he said simply, "Pay attention."

Eni thought that was all he was going to say, and he kept walking for another few paces before speaking again. "Like your hearing," he said.

"My hearing?" Eni asked, remembering what he had said only hours ago.

When the sounds of the city had pressed down on her, threatening to overwhelm her as sounds had seemed magnified to a terrible sharpness, he had said that it was because of the magic that had burst free of her after his defeat of the Zezernak. Magic can reach inwards, not just outwards, he had said, and even if she hadn't written the words down in her journal they would have remained burned into her mind.

The Slayer simply nodded. "Your hearing is better than a normal rabbit," he said, and it wasn't a question, "Even when you don't focus. That's part of your magic."

"I'm a hare," Eni reminded him, and he shrugged carelessly, the distinction apparently wasted on him.

Still, she wondered if he was right. It wasn't as though she knew exactly how well a normal hare could hear, but she supposed her own was quite sharp. "And for you, it's…" she asked, trailing off to let him finish the sentence.

"Smell," he said at last, his nostrils flaring briefly, "Mostly."

Eni nodded, filing the fact away to write down later. "Is that normal?" she asked, and after quickly glancing up and down the street for any potential eavesdroppers, added in a low voice, "For mages?"

The Slayer grunted a wordless affirmative. "What about Ceslaus?" Eni asked, and the Slayer shook his head.

"Illusionist," he said, "Not a mage."

"Oh," Eni replied, "What's the difference?"

She remembered that Ceslaus had introduced himself to her as a mage, but the Slayer had seemed skeptical of the leonine wolf before they met. Eni would have thought that after Ceslaus's displays of magic the Slayer would have been convinced, but that was apparently not the case. "Like the difference between a tree and a painting of a tree," the Slayer said after a moment's consideration, "Mages have power. Real power. Illusionists…"

He trailed off as he shook his head dismissively. "Little tricks to fool the senses. That's all," the Slayer said, "And mages are rare."

That much, at least, Eni already knew for herself. When she had first set off from Siverets, she had been trying to find anyone who could teach her magic. Her goal to find the Slayer as a teacher had come somewhat later when finding the legendary hero seemed more possible than finding a mage. "How rare?" Eni asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"Three in the last few decades," he answered, and there was a grim undercurrent to his words.

Eni felt absolutely confident that none of those mages were still alive anymore, and she burned with curiosity to know how the Slayer had filled the rest of his time since his disappearance. Had he, like her, spent years poring over books and hunting down rumors as he pursued the mere possibility of mages? Somehow the mental image didn't seem to fit, but neither could she imagine him working on a farm or as a potter or any other normal job. He was the Slayer, after all, and the only place he really belonged was on the field of battle with a terrible monster before him.

But that wasn't true and Eni knew it. The Slayer was a legend, but he was also a mammal. That was the side of him she couldn't help but wonder about; some of the old stories tried to emphasize that he wasn't so different from everyone else, but there was no telling how factual those representations were. Maybe, as some stories claimed, the Slayer had once had a secret wife whose loss he still mourned. Maybe his favorite food really was egg custard and his favorite drink mulled mead. Or maybe, as Eni now suspected more than ever, most of those little details had been made up by authors trying to make him more relatable.

But she would learn the truth.

Before Eni could ask another question they turned a corner and were upon the vast plaza with the Sovereign Gates on the other side. The cobblestones gave way to marble tiles that formed patterns of interlocking flowers and vines so large that if Eni had laid on the ground and stretched out her arms and legs she couldn't have covered even one of the massive blossoms. But as magnificent as the ground was, the gates themselves managed to be much more impressive. They were built into a massive and looming fortress that rose more than three hundred feet above the polished tiling, the graceful arc that the gates were set into showing off just how thick the building was. The fortress was nearly five hundred feet long, the huge blocks it was built out of giving way to the craggy stone of the ring of mountains that surrounded the Circle. The tunnel the archway formed, as Eni had seen for herself many times, was longer than the fortress was tall, set with seven individual sets of doors made by each of the sovereign cities.

The engraved brass of the closest set of doors gleamed in the sunlight, but Eni's view of the base of their bottoms was obstructed by a line longer than she had ever seen it before. There had to be nearly a hundred mammals waiting their turn just to get to the guard post just outside the wall. A number of guards, dressed in just as motley an assortment of armor as the ones that had been stationed at the division between the Aldstadt and the Vorstadt, kept a close eye on the queue. From the looks of it, though, Eni doubted anyone was going to make trouble.

Almost to a mammal, every one of the civilians had a slump-shouldered look of defeat written across their faces; Eni was sure that for most of them leaving Ctesiphon meant giving up their livelihood. A few were staggering under heavy loads of hastily-wrapped luggage, but most seemed to be traveling as light as she herself did, with no more than a single bag.

"Have your papers ready," one of the guards pacing up and down the queue said as Eni and the Slayer approached.

He was a muscular elk who spoke in a bored tone, not really seeming to pay attention to either of them. "Citizens of the Circle only. If you're not a citizen, get out of line now," he continued, jerking a thumb at the closest of a series of large banners set near the line before turning and walking toward the guard station.

There, in hastily printed letters nearly two inches tall, was a statement that hadn't been there the last time Eni passed through Ctesiphon.

By order of the Consul:

Travel to the Circle is PROHIBITED for non-citizens

NO EXCEPTIONS WILL BE MADE WITHOUT VALID VISA

Eni grabbed the Slayer's arm, her eyes widening at the words. "Do you have papers?" she hissed in a low voice.

Eni wasn't worried about herself; she had obtained her citizenship in Terregor years ago, and the slim metal punch card that proved it had never left her side since. But the Slayer was another story, and her heart sank as he shook his head. Eni stared mutely at the line for a second, trying to figure out what to do. As a member of the Library of Linrathrous, she should have been able to bring a guest into the Circle on her own authority without a visa; it wasn't something she had ever done but she knew some of the other antiquarians had occasionally escorted in experts from other nations. If things had been normal, it wouldn't have been a problem at all.

But, as every day in Ctesiphon seemed to remind her, normality had gone out the window.

"I'll meet you on the other side," the Slayer said, sounding completely unperturbed, and he started walking away from the line.

In the stories, the Slayer's word was his bond. He would no more go back on a promise than the sun would fail to rise in the east, and Eni desperately hoped the real mammal lived up to the legend in that regard. But she couldn't stop the flood of questions that rushed into her head as the Slayer began ambling away. Would he actually wait for her? Was he taking advantage of the situation to give her the slip?

If she was separated from him, could she ever find him again?

"Wait!" Eni said, much too loudly, and some of the nearest mammals turned to look at her and the Slayer with mild curiosity evident on their faces as she leaped after him and snagged his arm in both her paws.



"I—" Eni began, fumbling desperately for an excuse, "I can't believe you forgot your papers in the inn! Come on, we need to hurry back!"

She began pulling him away from the line, thanking the Mother that he wasn't making a scene. Instead, he was regarding her almost blankly as they briskly walked away. "I can get you papers," she whispered frantically, speaking without thinking.

"Don't need them to get through," he replied, and although he didn't jerk his arm out of her grasp she was afraid it was only a matter of moments before he would.

"And then what'll you do when you're in the Circle and a guard stops you?" Eni protested, "You could be arrested!"

"They can try," the Slayer said with perfect confidence.

There wasn't even as much as a hint of a boast in his words. He said it as though it was simply a fact, something as indisputable as the color of the sky. "But—" Eni began, unconsciously squeezing his arm closer to her chest, "But—"

He did tear his arm away then, and at the expression of annoyance on his face the right words clicked into place. "But that'll waste time," she said, "Right? If you let me help, no one will bother you—bother us—inside the Circle. Please. It won't take long."

Time almost seemed to have frozen as Eni watched the Slayer, who stood as still as a statue except for the idle movement of his tail. "Alright," he said at last, "Get me a pass."

"It won't be a problem," Eni promised, and as she spoke she realized that it wouldn't be.

Getting forged citizenship paperwork for the Circle was, so far as Eni knew, basically impossible. The metal punch cards that the Circle used encoded a significant amount of information about the mammal who carried it, from the obvious like their species and their name to specifics like their coloration, height, and weight. The punch cards themselves, beyond the holes they had for official purposes, were elaborately engraved, representing the exact same information in patterns of lines and dots. But that was only for citizenship papers. It had been right there on the banner; all she needed was a valid travel visa for the Slayer. And that, Eni realized, would be much easier to forge.

In theory.

Eni had never tried her paw at forgery before, but she wasn't about to let that stop her. "Come on," Eni said, doing her best to use a brisk and business-like tone, "We need to get to the post office."

 

The post office was, as far as Eni was concerned, the absolute perfect distance away from the Sovereign Gates. It was a long enough walk for her to come up with a plan, but not quite long enough for her to start second-guessing herself.

Well, mostly.

But Eni shoved those thoughts aside as she strode in, the Slayer a pace behind her. The post office in Ctesiphon wasn't quite as grand as the one in Terregor, but it was still a rather respectable setup. Rows and rows of locking mail boxes lined all of the walls, except where the door interrupted them on one side and where a long counter ran on the other. A few small writing desks were scattered across the center of the main narrow room, but at the moment there wasn't anyone writing out a letter or reading their mail. In fact, they seemed to have the post office almost entirely to themselves; the only other mammal Eni could see was the clerk behind the counter. The slim pine marten had his back to them as he darted back and forth, organizing parcels into little cubbies with what looked like the ease of long practice.

He paid them no mind as Eni led the Slayer over to the mailbox she had set up for herself, pulling out the slim key and unlocking the narrow box. Inside there were only a few letters from the university; Eni knew she should have emptied her mailbox regularly but she always felt safer leaving her important mail locked away in the post office rather than in the room of an inn. Not that the letters she currently had from the Library of Linrathrous were particularly secret, admittedly; one was from the Archivist, inquiring after her progress, and the other was from the Bursar, acknowledging her latest expense report. Still, the letter from the Archivist was exactly what she needed.

Or, more specifically, the envelope. It was postmarked from Terregor and, best of all, was addressed to her post office box rather than her directly. Eni pulled out the Archivist's letter, grateful that she had left the envelope intact, and stuffed it into her pocket as she approached the counter, pulling her copy of The Seven Labors from her bag as she did so.

The pine marten gave a little start when she rang the small bell on the polished wood of the counter, and he whirled around and gave Eni a respectful bow. "What'll it be today, ma'am?" he asked, smoothing down the front of his crisp uniform as he spoke.

"I have a package," she said, cradling the book in its thick cotton wrapping, "Going to Terregor."

"Terregor, is it?" he asked brightly, "We have a stork flying that way the day after tomorrow. Not as many birds wanting to stop in Ctesiphon these days, I'm afraid."

"That's fine," Eni said, anxious to get to the next part of her plan and painfully aware of the Slayer's eyes on her, "I'll take it."

"Very good," he said, "Let me get the form started for you."

He turned his back to her and started running one finger along the rows of cubbies, emerging before long with the proper documentation. Eni hurried through addressing it as quickly as possible, hoping the Slayer wouldn't get too bored waiting. After a matter of minutes that felt more like hours, the pine marten finished the paperwork with a flourish and accepted what was nearly all of the money left in Eni's purse. She was suddenly glad for the coins she had hidden in the spine of her journal; it seemed increasingly likely she'd need them.

"There we are ma'am," the clerk said, his good cheer apparently undiminished, "All I need now is the package."

For a moment Eni could only look at the little mammal, the enormity of what she was doing weighing heavily on her mind. "Ma'am?" the pine marten repeated, reaching out for the book with a puzzled look on his face.

"Rabbit," the Slayer said in a low and impatient voice, and Eni nearly dropped The Seven Labors in her haste to give it over to the postal clerk.

"I'll get this posted right away, ma'am," the pine marten said, wrapping the book in rough brown paper and affixing the label with a carelessness that made her wince.

He bounded off to the backroom of the post office and Eni watched him go for a long moment, wondering if she had made a mistake.

"What's wrong with you?" the Slayer asked.

Eni looked down at her empty paws and then back the way the pine marten had disappeared. "I've entrusted one of those most valuable books in the Cradle to the care of the post office, that's what's wrong with me," she said, running a paw through the tuft of fur atop her head that flopped in front of one eye.

She shuddered, feeling a chill go down her spine. "My Society for Antiquities is never going to let me hear the end of this," Eni said.

If that meant anything to the Slayer, he certainly didn't show it. "Now what?" he asked, impatience creeping back into his voice.

Eni rummaged through her rucksack for a moment before emerging with a blank punch card. She always carried a few on her, as the filing system in Terregor was entirely based on them, but a punch card was a punch card, and the one she held was printed with the university's seal and looked wonderfully official.

"Now we make you a travel visa on the university's say-so," Eni said, digging a stylus out of a pouch on the side of her bag.

"Why'd you need to send the book first?" the Slayer asked, following her to one of the little writing desks in the center of the room.

"To keep it safe," Eni said, "And so if anyone asks, my trip to the post office isn't suspicious at all. I checked my mail, sent a package, and started writing a letter."

Eni gestured down at the blank punch card and then gave the Slayer what she hoped was a winning smile. "It's all completely normal," she said.

The Slayer just grunted and then sank down into the chair opposite her.

"I'll need a name for this pass," Eni said, pausing with the sharp stylus in her paw hovering over the blank punch card.

The Slayer looked at her, indifference written on his face. "Then put a name," he said quietly, "Doesn't matter."

Eni hesitated, casting her mind around for something that would fit. Any name she could think of just didn't seem to fit the respect that the Slayer was due, and her fingers wavered. She felt painfully aware of the Slayer's stare and hastily began punching in the fields not related to his name. The wolf marginally relaxed, and in what she hoped was a casual voice Eni asked, "How were you planning on getting through the gates alone, anyway? Were you going to cut them open again?"

The story of how the Slayer had opened the Circle to the world was one of Eni's favorites, and it was perhaps the one most relevant to her own life. If the Circle had remained in isolation, barricading itself behind the magnificent gates of Ctesiphon, then she would have never been able to study in Terregor. But the Slayer hadn't stood for the Circle's refusal to help its neighbors once Princess Tekula snuck out of the Circle to beg him for assistance, or so the tale went. With one stroke of his flaming whip-sword he had cleaved the doors open and declared, for all to hear, that he would not abide by their cowardice.

Other versions of the story, ones that were far more flattering to the Circle, suggested that the Slayer had simply asked them to open their gates and lend their swords to the world beyond their walls to help push back the Scourge. As Eni continued to punch holes in the card, she snuck glances at the Slayer's face between punches, hoping that he'd resolve the truth of the matter once and for all.

His face remained a mask for several long seconds, the only sound the faint hiss of the sharp stylus passing through thick cardstock, and then he arched an eyebrow. "That what they say?" he asked, "I cut the gate open with a sword?"

Eni nodded and the Slayer's face became impassive again. "All I did was ask them to open the gates."

"Oh," Eni said, and although some part of her had always known that the version of the story that didn't involve a flaming sword cleaving through multiple locks was probably the more likely one, she couldn't deny feeling disappointed.

"Is that what you were going to do again?" she asked after a moment.

The Slayer shook his head briefly. "Would have climbed over the wall. Done it before."

The mental image of the wolf, clinging to the sheer wall with a fatal drop below and the city's finest soldiers patrolling above, suddenly struck Eni. "Well, it'd probably be harder to sneak past the guards this time," she said.

The Slayer shrugged again indifferently, as though it didn't matter to him whether there was one guard watching the wall or one hundred. Perhaps to him it really didn't matter, but Eni didn't even want to think about how difficult it would be for anyone else as she kept punching holes in the card. Lining up the stylus for another punch, Eni silently said a few words of thanks to the Archivist, who had made one of her very first assignments for the library to reorganize the files for the Iverin collection according to the same punch card scheme the Circle used.

She had found the assignment particularly tedious at the time, but it had helped her master the university's filing system and was now coming in handy in a way she never would have expected. Life could be funny like that, but as she did the mental math to work out the right pattern to encode the Slayer's fur and eye color she feared he was getting impatient watching her.

"Could you tell me about the first time, then?" Eni asked, hoping to give him something else to focus on, "When you did open the gates of the Circle. Is it true that Princess Tekula asked you to do it?"

"Not much of a story," the Slayer said, "But she did, yes."

Eni kept punching holes as she keenly waited for him to say more, and after a moment he continued. "Tekula climbed over the wall one night and found me camped on the mountain slopes outside the Circle. Near Adlivun."

"What'd she say?" Eni asked.

The Slayer paused for a moment, seeming to dredge up the memory with great difficulty. "She… she had a whole long speech she gave me. Something about how it was the Circle's duty to help and she needed me to convince them. Don't remember how it went."

Eni wished he had remembered what the princess had said, but as she kept working on the punch card it was still nice to hear the sound of his voice. After a moment the Slayer shrugged. "She had another reason, too. A few weeks before she left to find me, the League had sent some diplomats to the Circle to… Propose an alliance or a treaty. Something like that. Tekula's father sent them packing, but she had fallen in love."

"Really?" Eni asked; this wasn't a detail she had heard in any version of the story of how the Circle had opened its gates, "But Princess Tekula didn't marry someone from the League of Jaws."

"She wouldn't have," the Slayer said, "Her lover was the diplomat's chambermaid."

Eni's paw slipped and she punched a hole she hadn't meant to. "What?" she asked, sure she had heard the Slayer wrong.

"Tekula preferred the company of she-wolves," the Slayer said, apparently thinking her confusion was a simple lack of understanding when it came to the princess's romantic interests, "That's how we got her father to order the Circle to open up. Would have been a big scandal if it got out. So they all got what they wanted. Tekula got the Circle to open and help fight monsters. Even got herself that maid as her own servant. Her father got her into a political marriage with some lord from Lagadha. She didn't mind him having someone on the side, either."

The Slayer gestured vaguely, apparently considering the story over. Eni just stared at the punch card and the mistake she had made as she considered his words. The spot where her punch had gone awry was in the part of the card reserved for the mammal's name, and Eni thought about what she could do with it.

After a moment's consideration, she made a few more punches and gave the Slayer the card after stuffing it in the envelope. "Here you go, Tsar," she said, the last word feeling clumsy and somewhat awkward on her tongue.

"Tsar?" the Slayer asked, looking down at the punch card.

"That's your name, as far as the Circle is concerned," Eni said, "Tsar."

Saying it again, and hearing the Slayer say it, somehow made it feel right. Perhaps one day he'd entrust her with his real name—if he had one—but until then, Tsar would do.

"Then let's get back to the gates," Tsar said, slipping the card inside his cloak, "Siverets."

"You can call me Eni," she said, as it occurred to her that she had never told him her forename, and she offered him her paw to shake.

He looked down at her open palm for a moment, but then shook her paw quickly before letting go. "Eni," he said, and he motioned for the door with his head.

Eni couldn't help but beam at him, hearing him speak her name for the first time. They left the post office together, side by side, and her good mood refused to dissipate even as they made their way back to the Sovereign Gate and waited their turn to approach the guard station. The entire trip over it had somehow felt as though things were finally going right, and she was feeling so positive it took her a moment to realize something was very wrong.

Eni cheerfully greeted the guard on duty; Lieutenant Sammar had been one of the guards on rotation at the gate into the Circle when Eni had first arrived there, and even his promotion to lieutenant three years ago hadn't changed his familiar nature. He had always carried himself with an ease that seemed perfectly designed to defuse situations before they escalated. Sammar had warmly welcomed her back to the Circle, and bid her farewell when she left, for years, and she didn't think she had ever seen him frown in any of those encounters.

Eni had been so relieved to see the lynx, sure that it was another sign of things finally going her way, that she hadn't even noticed that Lieutenant Sammar wasn't smiling as usual. His face was, in fact, positively grim as he looked down at her from his guard station. "Citizenship papers please, miss," he said, his voice cold and dull.

That was even more worrying; Eni had never met anyone with a better memory for faces and names than the lynx, who had always just called her by her first name. Eni produced her own punch card, handing over the cold piece of metal to Sammar. He gave her a brusque nod and then fed it into an elaborate mechanical assembly beside the desk, turning a crank and producing the familiar clattering din of gears and cams for several seconds before the device spit out a slip of paper. Sammar looked from the slip of paper to Eni and then back again, his mouth set in a grim line.

"Welcome back to the Circle, Miss Siverets," he said at last, giving her back her punch card, although his expression didn't brighten.

"Are you doing alright, Lieutenant Sammar?" Eni asked as he waved her across the line that officially divided Ctesiphon from the Circle.

For a moment, Sammar's face softened ever so slightly. The professional coldness disappeared, and Eni thought she could see genuine appreciation at her concern. "My fiancée's visa application was denied," he said, "The Circle won't let her in."

"I'm so sorry," Eni said, and she realized she should have guessed at what had been bothering him.

From the brief conversations they had held over the years, Eni knew that Sammar had been born in Vornstrom and greatly missed the hustle and bustle of the Circle's capital. His fiancée, however, was from Ctesiphon. Eni had never met her, but she could imagine what Sammar was going through, letting others escape Ctesiphon's slow collapse while the mammal he cared most about was trapped.

"Thank you, Miss Siverets," he said, and then Sammar's face became that of a professional soldier instead of a lovesick mammal as he barked out, "Next, please."

Eni said a silent prayer to the Mother as the Slayer produced his forged visa; she didn't think it'd help but it didn't seem like it could hurt. Sammar scrutinized Tsar much more closely than he had her, and it took much longer for the machine at the lieutenant's side to produce a slip of paper than it had when Eni's own punch card had been processed. A frown crossed Sammar's face as he looked from the slip to Tsar, and just as Eni was beginning to worry that she had made some kind of glaring mistake the lynx gave Tsar his document back.

"Welcome to the Circle, Mister Tsar," Sammar said, his voice tight and hard.

He waved the Slayer past the same line Eni had crossed, and a pang of guilt struck her as Sammar stared briefly at Tsar's back before turning to face the next mammal in the queue. The Slayer didn't seem to have noticed, and as he started briskly walking down the long tunnel that ran through the fortress Eni hurried after him. Their footsteps echoed in the cavernous space, the ceiling of which was lost in darkness that even the brilliant lanterns lining the walls at regular intervals couldn't touch.

As they continued, the dim arc of light at the exit grew gradually brighter until at last the sky was visible. It was as blue as Eni had ever seen it, as lively and as vivid as the Slayer's eyes. They passed each of the first six massive series of open doors in silence; the lushness of the grass and trees, untouched by the Blight, seemed to beckon them forward. The low murmur of the wind promised a crisp autumn day, bringing with it nothing more than the fresh scent of nature itself. As they approached the seventh and final set of doors Eni spoke. "Where will we start in Tormurghast, Tsar?" she asked, relishing the feeling of calling him by a name.

The Slayer didn't look at her, but he did answer. "I know someone there," he said.

Eni nodded eagerly. "We'll put a stop to whatever that monster was planning," she said; it was the sort of thing that just felt right to say, like something the Slayer himself would have said in one of the stories about him.

The Slayer, however, came to a sudden stop just a few feet short of the end of the tunnel and the road to Tormurghast that stretched before them. "Ceslaus, you mean?" he asked, his voice surprisingly hard, "You think he's a monster?"

"He—" Eni began, puzzled and more than a little confused by Tsar's sudden shift in mood, "He's responsible for everything going wrong in Ctesiphon. The Blight, the deaths, the misery… He ate mammals! If that doesn't make him—"

"I've killed innocent mammals with my own teeth and claws and eaten them raw," Tsar snapped, cutting her off, "That's who your Slayer is, rabbit. If Ceslaus is a monster then so am I."

His face had become terrible with anger, his mane of fur bristling over flashing eyes and awful fangs, and for a moment Eni almost thought he might grab her as his fingers twitched at his sides. Instead, though, he just pointed back toward Ctesiphon. "Give up before it's too late," he said, and as he spoke he seemed to collect himself, the fury fading out of his face and replaced with something almost like sympathy.

Maybe he was lying. Maybe he was just trying to scare her off… Or maybe it was the truth. Whatever it was, Eni spoke without having to think. "No," she said, "I'm following you wherever this leads. We're going to figure it out. Together."

The Slayer started walking again, and Eni followed.














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