Chapter 09: Master of Magic
Updated: May 25
The road to Tormurghast was one that Eni knew well; a paved thoroughfare as flat as glass and over sixty feet wide, capable of carrying mercantile convoys and entire armies without crowding. It was the artery that fed into the Sovereign Highway and made the Circle whole, but it was not the route Tsar took. After a little more than a quarter mile, he turned onto a backroad Eni had only traveled once or twice. The wagon ruts in the gritty dirt looked deeper and fresher and the path seemed a little broader than it had been, as though it had seen more use in recent months. Perhaps it was just a result of leaving Ctesiphon, where it felt as though it wasn't possible to go more than a hundred feet before hitting a building, but the Circle felt larger than it ever had before. With no buildings clawing upwards to spoil the view, the sky felt infinitely vast above them.
Even after hours on the road, the Slayer just a half-step ahead of her, it still felt almost unreal for Eni. It was no longer just her, as it had been for years as she traveled the Cradle for scraps of knowledge. It was her and the Slayer, and the excitement had yet to leave her. It was almost enough to make up for her weariness.
Almost… But not quite. If she was honest with herself, her eyelids felt heavier than ever, her vision swimming in and out of focus. Eni was no stranger to going without sleep—in the days before her thesis defense she hadn't taken so much as a nap—but she had never felt so exhausted. Tsar, by contrast, seemed utterly tireless. He had set their pace and so far as she could tell hadn't slowed at all.
It made it all the more surprising, then, when he suddenly came to a stop; Eni nearly ran right into him it was so abrupt. She watched as he looked from side to side, his eyes narrowed, and wondered what it was that had alerted him. Eni could feel her breath coming more quickly as she followed his example, trying desperately to notice something that she must have overlooked. Had there been a sound? A smell? Perhaps a monster was lurking behind the nearby grove of tall willows that swayed and sighed in the wind, and Eni blearily stared at the trees, her grasp tightening on her trident as she tried to will herself into alertness.
A dull roar filled her ears as her heart quickened in her chest, and then the Slayer spoke for the first time in hours. "This'll do," he said, and he took a seat on the grass just off the side of the road.
Eni could only look at him, cudgeling her mind as she tried to make some kind of sense out of his words, and he looked back. Tsar cocked his head to the side, his eyes locked onto hers, and then he spoke again. "You can sit and eat, rabbit," he said, glancing away as he dug into a pouch on his belt.
Eni was glad that he wasn't looking at her anymore because she could feel her ears turning red; she could only imagine how foolish she looked standing there as though another Zezernak was about to burst from beyond the peaceful trees and attempt to devour them. She sank down to the ground, hiding her face as she rummaged through her bag. Eni emerged with a rather forlorn-looking piece of hardtack, but the Slayer's meal seemed little better. He had produced a few strips of salted fish that looked as tough as leather, but if his meal was as unappetizing as it looked the wolf didn't seem to mind. Tsar gnawed at his food with a surprising delicacy, his brilliantly white and wickedly sharp teeth catching the light of the midday sun.
Eni realized she was staring and forced herself to look away, but she instantly regretted moving her head so fast. The world sluggishly rotated around her for a moment, and Eni knew that it wasn't the magic inside her or that of the outside world wreaking havoc on her perceptions. She was just tired, and she tried distracting herself with her meal.
Eni broke off a piece of hardtack, which made a sound like a branch being snapped in half, and then looked at it carefully. She didn't see any of the holes that would mean weevils had gotten into it, and so with a grimace of distaste she popped it between her lips. Every bit of moisture in her mouth instantly fled, and even several swigs of the tepid water from her canteen didn't do much to improve the experience. Eni took up another piece of hardtack, doing her best to inspect it, but it was hard to focus her eyes.
She stifled a yawn which otherwise might have made her spray the Slayer with crumbs and shifted slightly on the ground. The grass felt incredibly soft beneath her, and Eni imagined what it would be like to simply lay down and close her eyes for a minute. She was halfway to stretching out when she realized what she was about to do and bit down on her tongue just hard enough to hurt. The pain made her eyes water and she sat up straight again. I will not fall asleep, Eni told herself, I will not.
"We're making…" Eni began, and yawned again before she was able to finish, "Good time."
The Slayer grunted in response, his attention still on his meager lunch. Eni had hoped he would say something, just to give her something to focus on, but he didn't seem to be one for idle conversation. He wasn't very much like how the Slayer was depicted in The Seven Labors at all, really. Eni wondered whether the book was safe. Maybe the bird—a stork, had the pine marten said?—had arrived in Ctesiphon early and even now was flying it to Terregor. Maybe the Avian messenger was already in the sky, soaring among the puffy white clouds that stretched overhead. Eni wondered what it'd be like, to be so far above the world and so free. It'd probably be quiet, she thought. There'd be a lovely silence, a sort of serenity unmatched by anything earthbound. Maybe Tsar could teach her how to fly.
Some of the stories said the Slayer's magic made it possible, and as the thought occurred to her, Tsar reached out and gently grabbed her wrist. "Like this," he said, and as he pulled both of their feet left the ground.
The road was retreating beneath them with incredible speed, but Eni wasn't the least bit afraid. How could she be? She could feel the air rushing past her, her free arm outstretched as the fingers of her other paw entwined themselves with Tsar's. His grip was firm and comforting, and it didn't feel as though he was holding her aloft by pulling on her arm. It was like the wind itself was carrying them, as gentle as a mother holding a baby, and Eni looked down from the dazzlingly blue sky they were soaring toward. She could see the Circle beneath them, Tormurghast as small and as perfect as a dollhouse. It looked like it'd only take them a few minutes to reach their destination, but the Slayer didn't seem to be in any particular hurry. They dove in and out of clouds, which felt as soft as cotton and stretched streamers of pure white from Eni's fingertips. A slow smile crossed her face and—
Eni's eyes snapped open.
The inky night sky stretched above her, twinkling stars shining down like brilliant chips of diamond, but their beauty was lost on her. She had fallen asleep, and her stomach sank. "Tsar?" Eni called out into the darkness, scrambling to her feet as her heart suddenly raced, "Tsar!"
There wouldn't be an answer. She knew there wouldn't be. The Slayer had abandoned her; she could feel it in her gut. He barely tolerated her, and when she had threatened to slow him down he had left her behind. "Tsar!" she shouted, not caring that desperation had given her voice a ragged edge; panic filled her and she cursed herself for her weakness.
"Yes?" a voice from behind her said, and as Eni spun around a wave of relief so powerful it nearly brought her to her knees washed over her.
A wolf was in silhouette, a small fire behind him providing just barely enough light to make him visible. But even in the dim light Eni was sure that it was him, and as she looked at him she noticed the details she had overlooked in her moment of terror. The grove of willow trees they had stopped beside was gone; beyond the campfire was nothing more than rolling scrubland. She wasn't where she had fallen asleep what must have been hours earlier, and Eni spoke as the realization of what must have happened came to her. "You carried me while I was sleeping," she said.
"Not very heavy," he said.
There was a pause, and Eni felt her ears flush as she imagined how he must have done so. On his back seemed the most likely option, and Eni could imagine herself, with a vividness that felt as real as her dream had, with her head resting against his shoulder. She hoped she hadn't drooled on him; the last thing she needed was to suffer yet another embarrassment. Tsar's head cocked to the side and he spoke. "Bad dream?"
"Yes," Eni answered automatically, but she couldn't help but correct herself, "Well, no, not really. I dreamed we were flying but…"
Eni swallowed hard. "When I woke up I thought you had… left," she admitted, and the Slayer's head turned the other way.
"I see," he said, his face unreadable in the darkness and his tone just as indecipherable.
There was another pause, disturbed only by the sigh of the wind and the chirps and calls of whatever insects and vermin hid in the grasses. "Thank you, Master Slayer," Eni said, cutting a stiff formal curtsy, "I shouldn't have—"
"Don't apologize," he said, a note of irritability creeping into his voice, "I understand."
Eni wished she did. Was he upset that she had underestimated him? Ashamed that she had considered it a possibility? Eni couldn't tell, but she had no idea what to say. "Made dinner," the Slayer said at last, and he jerked his thumb back in the direction of the fire, "You should eat."
Without waiting for a response, he turned and headed for his little campfire. As Eni followed him, she saw there was a small iron pot over the flames. Tsar sank down by the side of the fire and rummaged around in his bag before pulling forth a pair of battered tin cups, into which he ladled some of the pot's contents. "Magic," he said as he gave Eni one of the steaming cups, "It's always tiring."
Eni accepted the serving of what seemed to be some kind of stew, although she wasn't quite sure. By the gentle light of the fire it was a peculiar grayish color unlike anything she had ever eaten before, and it didn't seem to have much of a smell. "Not poison," the Slayer added, and Eni realized she had been staring at the meal for too long, "No meat, either."
He took a gulp from his own cup, but at the word "meat" the memory of what Ceslaus had forced her to eat returned with a stomach-churning intensity and killed any appetite she might have had. Eni curled her paws around her mug, savoring the warmth as she looked into the steaming surface of the liquid. "Eat," the Slayer urged, "It'll help."
Eni took a hesitant sip and froze, desperately trying to avoid pulling a face. The stew wasn't awful, in the way that flesh had been, where the flavor and the texture had made her gag. It was simply terrible in an entirely mundane way; although it tasted of mushrooms there was a sharp and deeply bitter flavor to it. Eni tried not to cough but failed; the stew might not be poisonous but that was about all she could say for it.
Tsar looked at her quizzically as she coughed again, and Eni groped for the right thing to say. "It's very…" she began, but anything even vaguely approving she might have said would have been a blatant lie.
"Do you mind if I season it a little?" Eni finished instead, and the Slayer shrugged.
"Don't have spices," he said.
As Eni rummaged through her bag for the small metal vials she used in her own cooking, she wondered why. From the way Tsar had added honey to his tea back in Ctesiphon he at the very least had a fondness for sweets, and she couldn't imagine spending decades on the road if every meal tasted as bad as what he had just made.
Eni could have simply tried fixing her own portion, but as she considered how best to make use of the spices she did have a better idea struck her. The little iron pot atop the fire was still more than half full, and Tsar almost certainly meant to take another portion after he finished his own mug. Eni's supply of spices was running a bit low—like everything else in Ctesiphon seasonings had become ruinously expensive—but there was enough left to at least do something.
Conscious of the Slayer's eyes on her, Eni carefully added a few shakes of salt and dried herbs to the pot and stirred it slowly. A cautious taste was enough for Eni to tell that, while the stew never would have made it onto a table at a restaurant in Terregor, it was significantly better than it had been. Seeing that Tsar had finished his first mug of stew, Eni refilled it from the pot and offered it back to him.
The Slayer lapped up a mouthful, giving Eni a brief glimpse of a tongue that was much longer than she would have guessed, and rolled his head to the side as a thoughtful look came across his face. "Better," he said at last, and Eni felt a knot of tension easing between her shoulders.
They both ate in silence afterwards until the pot was empty, and the Slayer gathered it up along with their dirty tin cups and the ladle. "I'll wash up," he said, "There's a stream nearby."
Eni opened her mouth to protest, to say that she could do it since she had barely done any of the work cooking, but Tsar spoke again before she could. "We'll get to Tormurghast in two days' time," he said, "Unless you stop following me."
The Slayer gave an inelegant shrug and turned away, walking toward the faint sound of running water. Eni closed her mouth and simply nodded, although he naturally couldn't see her. He hadn't said he wouldn't abandon her—not directly, anyway—but it felt as though he had. Eni pulled out her journal and tried to capture everything that had happened since her last entry, and she even felt as though she had gotten back into the flow of the work. Still, Eni was more than a little relieved when Tsar returned.
She immediately put her journal away; it had been a good distraction to make more entries while she waited but she wasn't about to ignore the Slayer while he was in her presence. He paid her no attention at first as he neatly packed his cooking supplies and removed his bedroll, but when he was done he sat down by her side. "You're still tired," he said, and Eni got the feeling that he was somehow looking through her as he stared her in the eyes, "We'll start tomorrow."
"Start?" Eni asked, and the Slayer nodded.
"Teaching you to control the power inside you."
Eni wasn't entirely sure, the next morning, how she had managed to go to sleep the night before. Tsar hadn't had any problem whatsoever; after his declaration he had simply laid out his bedroll, nestled himself atop it, and fallen asleep so quickly that it had appeared instantaneous. Still, she supposed she must have been more tired than she had thought, because morning came before she knew it.
The Slayer was already awake, sitting by the remains of their fire and slowly gnawing on a piece of salted fish, and when he saw she was up he stood. "We'll leave once you're ready," he said, and Eni thought she must have set a record for how quickly she prepared herself.
If the Slayer appreciated her speed or thought she had still gone too slowly Eni couldn't tell, but they were back on the road to Tormurghast as the sun began rising. In the light of day, Eni could actually tell where they were, and she was impressed by how far the Slayer had carried her while she slept. He must have managed to keep up the pace he had maintained walking without any such burden, which Eni wasn't sure any other mammal could have managed.
"You've already tried teaching yourself magic," Tsar said abruptly, moments after they were back on the road.
"I… Yes," Eni said.
She was coming to realize that the Slayer had a peculiar habit of simply speaking after long lapses into silence, but even being aware of this did little to prepare her for it. He had phrased his words as a statement, not as a question, but he had been absolutely correct. "You never had a teacher," he continued, and his tone was thoughtful.
Eni shook her head, and the Slayer didn't say anything more. After nearly a minute of simply walking, their feet not kicking up any dust with the road still damp from the morning dew, Eni chanced saying something herself. "What about you? Is it true you learned magic from a dragon?" Eni asked.
Tsar looked over at her and didn't quite smile, his muzzle remaining set in a grim line, but his eyes seemed to soften somewhat. "No such thing as dragons," he said, "Just stories on how pointless fighting nature is."
Eni couldn't help but be a little disappointed, but she hadn't really expected that story to be true. After all, if there really were such creatures as dragons—creatures smarter, stronger, and far more powerfully magical than a thousand mages together—it didn't seem likely that mammals would still be around. "My teachers were…" he began, and it looked to Eni as though he was struggling for the right word.
The Slayer sometimes seemed to talk like a mammal who had half-forgotten how to do so, although he spoke Modern Circi with a perfectly flat accent. He could have been from anywhere, but years of chasing him down had made it feel to Eni as though he had come from nowhere. "My teachers were just mammals," he said at last, "But the most important lessons…"
He trailed off again, and for a moment his eyes seemed almost unfathomably old to Eni. "The most important lessons I learned myself," he finished.
"But you can teach me?" Eni asked, hearing the hopefulness in her own words.
"To control it better," Tsar said.
Eni nodded eagerly. "How do we start?" she asked, and the Slayer seemed to consider the question for a long time before finally speaking.
"What do you know?" he asked.
"Not much," Eni admitted, "I spent years looking for grimoires that could teach me, but—"
"Can't learn magic out of a book," Tsar interrupted, "Magic isn't like a triangle."
Eni wasn't quite sure she had heard him correctly. "A triangle?" she repeated.
The Slayer drew out a right triangle in the air with one finger. "Triangles follow rules," he said, "Know the lengths of the legs and you know the length of the hypotenuse. Triangles are orderly. Predictable. Magic isn't."
Eni was a bit surprised to hear the Slayer express an understanding of geometry, but the thought he was expressing was more than a little frightening. "Magic doesn't have rules?" she asked, "But then how does anyone learn it?"
The Slayer showed no sign of being bothered by her outburst. "How does a mammal learn how to walk?" he asked.
Eni thought his question over carefully; she certainly didn't want him to think that she was an idiot. "It's instinct, isn't it?" she asked, "No one studies how to walk."
"What if you were cured of a lifetime of paralysis?" Tsar asked.
"It… I guess the same way a child learns. Practice."
Tsar nodded. "Stumbling… Falling over. Magic is… worse than gravity. Harder. Pushes you over, again and again. Fights you, gets in your head…"
He paused for a moment, his eyes darkening. "Survive it, outlast everything it throws at you…" he went on, "And you'll be the master of your magic."
The wolf seemed pleased that she was beginning to understand, but Eni's heart sank in her chest. She had hoped that magic would be like a language, something with words of power that could be arranged according to some kind of grammar she could learn. Some of the books she had read that alluded to magic had suggested as much, and to hear that what little she knew was woefully wrong felt like a punch to the gut.
How was she possibly supposed to learn to control something that was nothing more than feelings and guesswork? She had devoted herself to knowledge, to learning and cataloging the information that previous generations had passed down, and Tsar had all but told her it was pointless. The wind whispered angrily around her as it blew past with a biting chill that promised that the day would not be a warm one. Useless, a low voice moaned, He's wrong. There's power, yes, power waiting for you to claim it. Eni froze in place, coming to a sudden halt. The sinister voice of the wind was one that was awfully familiar, even though she had heard it only once before.
It was the voice the wind had used years ago when her search for the Slayer almost ended before it truly began.
The trees off the side of the road suddenly began swaying furiously, creaking and groaning as their limbs were pushed by the invisible force. A branch longer than Eni was tall snapped off an oak tree and sailed away like a kite, and even as Eni tried reeling the power back into herself she could feel the strain. The wind laughed at her, the air around her growing colder until her breath was visible. Her eyes watered from it, stinging painfully as the gusts clawed at her. Eni gave a wordless cry, trying to push the power away, but it had only grown stronger.
There was a throbbing pulse connecting her to the wind, which continued speaking in that same awful voice. The wolf lies, but you can make him tell the truth. Force it out of him. He's weak, yes, weaker than you. He—
"Ignore it!" the Slayer bellowed.
He was standing in front of her, forcing his way to her with what looked like considerable effort. His ragged cloak rippled away from his lean form in a wind that howled like a gale, but Eni could still hear him. He reached out one paw as he kept staggering forward, using his other to shield his face from the debris that had been kicked up. A twig no longer than Eni's finger streaked at his face, but even as it left a line of red as thin as a sheet of paper he didn't stop moving toward her. Droplets of blood blew away from his face as he pushed himself closer, and Eni reached out with her own paw. "Help me!" she cried, and the voice of the wind grew louder.
He's nothing! He's yours to command, if only you'll let me!
"You stopped it before, rabbit!" the Slayer yelled, his words getting harder and harder to hear as the shriek of the wind filled her ears, "You can stop it now!"
As soon as her fingers touched his, a brilliant flash of light followed. A bolt of lightning burst up from the ground, as thick around as a tree trunk and stretching past the clouds before splitting into roiling branches. Maybe the Slayer's faith in her was nothing more than him saying what he needed to. Maybe he didn't mean it. But for the briefest instant, Eni felt the power inside the Slayer, utterly eclipsing that of the wind, and then there was a crack of thunder that shook her lungs inside her chest and momentarily deafened her.
The world went utterly silent, completely overwhelmed by the energy the Slayer had unleashed, and everything suddenly focused inwards. Every single strand of fur on Eni's body was alive with the slightest motion, but her attention drew tighter and tighter as the world around her lost color and dimmed into nothingness. Every beat of her heart was an earthquake, the pulse of blood through all her veins and arteries an entire city's worth of mammals in motion, and time stretched until she could feel her thoughts themselves, a brilliant maelstrom over a chaotic ocean.
And then the feeling was gone and the taste of dirt filled her mouth.
Eni groaned, and the sound seemed horribly distant as she flopped over. She didn't remember it happening, but she seemed to have fallen flat on her face with her mouth open, which explained the taste. The voice of the wind was gone, though, and as she managed to roll onto her back, feeling her pulse throbbing in her ears, the world spun before settling back down.
Her stomach churned with a wave of nausea, but it passed as she forced herself to sit up. The Slayer was looking at her, offering her his paw again. "Should have caught you," he said.
Eni accepted his grip, which was every bit as strong yet gentle as she had dreamed it to be, and let him help pull her upright, a small smile spreading across her face.
"You did," she said.