"So…" Eni said, abruptly breaking the silence.
The Slayer didn't react, and she added, "Uh, Tsar?"
Perhaps it was just her imagination, but after a long moment his head seemed to incline ever so slightly to one side. Eni decided to take it as an acknowledgement and asked her question. "What is theurgy?"
It had been hours since the magic inside her had rattled loose once more, and the Slayer hadn't spoken another word since helping her up. His focus seemed to be entirely on reaching Tormurghast as quickly as possible, the pace he had set not slacking even slightly. But while he seemed content to keep walking in silence, Eni was not.
It wasn't just that she had lost control and her magic had raged before she could reel it back in. It wasn't even that it was growing stronger, the magic pulling harder than it ever had.
It was that her fits of power were growing more frequent.
The energy inside Eni had come to her slowly, but when she was younger it always needed time to build back up after a release. This time it had only been a matter of days, and Eni wondered what would happen if she couldn't learn control soon. Would she even be able to visit a city again if she was always so close to unleashing an uncontrollable force? She imagined a life in virtual exile, living as a hermit or else wandering the roads alone forever, never again to visit a library or speak to another mammal, and the thought refused to leave her mind.
No matter what she tried, the fear refused to leave the pit of her stomach, and when she could at last no longer handle it she had spoken. Maybe magic really did have no rules. Maybe it was simply a matter of feeling and guesswork that refused to be pinned down. But Eni had spent her entire life believing that knowledge was the most precious treasure, and she wouldn't be satisfied until she had learned everything she could.
The Slayer didn't answer her question at once, and Eni tried not to take it personally. He did seem to be considering the matter, at the very least, his head cocking to one side in the way that Eni was beginning to associate with his carefully thinking something over. "Everything," he said at last.
"Everything?" Eni repeated; it was almost the vaguest and most useless answer she had ever heard.
"Theurgy's in everything. Everything living, like blood," Tsar continued slowly, "It's… reality's blood, oozing out when magic hurts it. But it's not a liquid. It's like… the heat of a fire. Even with your eyes closed, you can feel the warmth. And some things can…"
The Slayer lapsed into one of his silences again, only picking up the thread of his thought nearly half a minute later. "Some things can retain it, or be influenced by it," he said, "Like a rock that's been sitting in the sun. Starts hot, but if you put it in the shade it cools off. Theurgy fades like that."
Eni considered his explanation carefully. She had read a similar description of theurgy once before, but she had never heard about the energy fading away. "So if something dies—something like a monster—its theurgy should dissipate slowly instead of all at once?"
The Slayer's only response was a wordless sound of acknowledgement, but Eni felt more than a little pleased with herself. Tsar's concern over the Zezernak's theurgy simply vanishing suddenly made sense; from how he described it, what had happened was as though a ball thrown up into the air had simply kept going up instead of ever coming down. "So what could make the Zezernak's theurgy disappear?" Eni asked.
The Slayer didn't respond.
He didn't even break his stride as he continued walking, but Eni couldn't help but turn what she knew over in her head. Earlier, when they had first met and she had first asked about theurgy, he had implied that a mage might be responsible. But Ceslaus, it seemed, was not a mage. Eni wondered if the Slayer had a hunch about what might have happened that he simply wasn't sharing or if he was as puzzled as she was. As the Archivist had been fond of saying, the difference between a fool and a wise mammal only became obvious once they spoke. Not that she thought the Slayer was a fool, but Eni wished he was more talkative.
If her questions bothered him she couldn't tell, but Eni wanted to make the most of them in case he did find them irritating. Her thoughts irresistibly turned to the book that they had recovered from Ceslaus's manor; there was no telling what secrets might be locked away in the indecipherable text. Eni's imagination began running down lines that might have been implausible, but she didn't know enough about magic to be sure. Perhaps there had been a mage lurking around Ctesiphon who had fled after the Zezernak's death. Perhaps a troublesome spirit was stealing theurgy to make itself stronger. Perhaps—
Eni frowned suddenly as something occurred to her. She thought for a moment on how best to phrase it, taking in the beautiful view as she pondered. Off the thoroughfare, the stables and taverns were far rarer and not quite as spotlessly clean, but the occasional village was still visible, surrounded by quilt-like patches of carefully tended farmland. The last harvest of fall had not yet come, and everything was a luscious green that was a bit shocking after so long spent in Ctesiphon. Outside the gateway city, everything felt alive.
But not everything was alive the way plants and mammals were. The idea stuck in Eni's mind, and she asked her question. "If theurgy's only in living things," she said, "What about the voices of the spirits I hear?"
The Slayer looked at her, his expression mild, and Eni continued, "Like the fire or the wind. I could hear spirits speak to me."
Eni had expected the Slayer to consider her question thoughtfully for several minutes, but his answer was immediate. "You've never heard spirits," he said.
Eni gaped at him for a moment, but he looked utterly serious. The spirits of fire and wind weren't the only voices Eni had heard, but she thought that the Slayer surely must have been aware of them, considering that the spirits had tried killing him before she managed to rein them in. "I have," she said firmly, "Whenever my magic—"
"Your magic," the Slayer interrupted, "Yes."
Eni was about to say that she didn't understand when an awful understanding hit her. "Do you mean," she said, and she had to swallow the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat to continue, "Do you mean those voices are mine?"
The Slayer simply nodded, and Eni grabbed at his arm. "No," she said, "No, that's not true. It can't be true. I…"
The idea that the voices, which had so often urged her to violence, were her own desires was sickening, but Eni didn't have the words to describe how she felt. Tsar shook her paw loose effortlessly. "It's true," he said simply, "Only you can control them."
"But how?" Eni asked, desperation giving her voice a hard edge.
Tsar gestured at the path before them, pointing out a sturdy old maple tree in the process of turning a beautiful red-orange. "See that branch?" he asked.
"I see it," Eni said, and she was sure she knew exactly the one he meant.
About four feet above the ground, the stub of a broken limb projected outwards from the mossy bark. The end was jagged where most of the branch had snapped off, making it look like the tip of a crudely made spear.
Tsar turned his head away and stared where his finger was pointing. "Imagine running at that branch. Running as fast as you could without stopping. Can you imagine that?"
"I can," Eni said, a bit hesitantly; it was easy enough to picture.
"What would happen?"
Eni stared at the Slayer for a moment. "It'd go through my chest," she said at last, "I'd die."
"You would," the Slayer said, quietly, and he had come to a stop, staring at the broken branch.
He paused for a moment before continuing. "You can imagine it," he said, "Or if you're standing atop a cliff, you might think, 'What if I jump?' You know you couldn't survive the fall. The thought still comes. Even if you don't act on it, the thought is there."
It was the longest Eni had ever heard Tsar speak without fumbling over his words, and it seemed to have cost him a significant effort. He was silent for a moment, his long cloak fluttering in the same wind that made the maple tree sway and its leaves whisper softly against each other. "You don't act on those thoughts," he continued, "You have them. You accept you have them. They come from you. But…"
He trailed off into silence, apparently at a loss for how to continue. "A mammal may only be judged for what he has done, not what he thinks," Eni said.
"The Code of En-Barasar," Tsar replied, naming the ancient tiger king who had laid down his laws more than four thousand years ago.
The wolf paused, and then added, "He killed his niece for plotting against him."
Eni was more than a little surprised that the Slayer knew what would simply be historical trivia to most mammals, but she did have to admit that En-Barasar's life hadn't always lived up to the laws he had established. "That's true," Eni said, "But it's a good ideal, isn't it?"
Tsar shrugged. "Mammals have laws," he said, "Magic doesn't."
Tsar started walking again, and Eni hastened to catch up with his long strides. "I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to do," Eni admitted; as interesting as the Slayer's perspective was, it had been more than a little short on useful instructions.
"You hear the voices when you're upset," he said after a moment, "Don't you?"
"When I'm angry or… Or frightened," Eni replied.
Admitting that she felt fear seemed a touch shameful in front of the hero of legend; Eni had seen him face down a monster without so much as flinching. "They're always there," Tsar said, "Reach out for them. Listen for them. Accept that they're a part of you. And then reject them."
Eni took a deep breath and nodded, and then she reached up to her jacket and undid her hood. The silk of the finely made net felt almost like a liquid in her paws, but the weights sewed into its edges made it reassuringly solid. Eni neatly folded it and stowed it away in her satchel, allowing her ears to spring free. The Slayer hadn't stopped walking, but as Eni finished putting her hood away she caught him looking at her, his expression bland.
"My hearing's better when my ears aren't covered," she said, trying to avoid letting a defensive note creep into her voice.
Tsar shrugged and looked away without replying, and Eni unconsciously ran her paw across the fur of one ear as she smoothed it down her back again. It occurred to her that he had never seen her with her hood off and her ears up before, but she couldn't tell what he thought of how it made her look. Not that it mattered, of course; Eni told herself she couldn't allow any distractions. The Slayer had given her the very first lesson of what she hoped would be many, and she was going to do her very best.
Eni tried listening as hard as she could, straining for every possible sound. There was her heartbeat and her own breathing, steady and even and perfectly familiar. Beyond her was the Slayer's; the wolf's heart beat much more slowly but it sounded somehow stronger. His breathing was slower too, and it seemed as though he wasn't straining himself at all. Eni tried reaching out even further, letting everything wash over her. There was the soft impact of their footsteps against the path, the clicks and chirps of insects hiding in the long grasses on either side of the back road, and the slight flutter of the breeze making all the plants rustle.
But there were no voices.
Eni tried again, straining for that sense of the magic inside her pulling loose, but nothing happened. Minutes passed as Eni reached out again and again, but the whisper of those cruel voices refused to come. "Try closing your eyes," the Slayer said suddenly.
He reached out one paw, clearly to guide her, and Eni grabbed it; even through her glove she could feel the roughness of his paw pads. As Eni squeezed her eyes shut, trusting him to prevent her from running into something, she reached out with her senses again. There was the utter void that came along with having her eyes closed, and all of the sounds that she had heard before, but there was something new. It was like the charge the air got to it when a lightning storm was coming, and Eni knew that it had to be the magic in the Slayer, so strong that simply touching him was enough to feel it.
But the Slayer had told her to focus on voices, not on his own power, and Eni tried to set the sensation aside. She wasn't sure how long they walked, the Slayer not speaking but occasionally pulling or pushing at her paw to avoid obstacles, but the only voice she could hear in her head was her own.
This is pointless.
Eni resisted the urge to sigh. If the Slayer said it was the right way to learn, he had to be correct. Maybe he enjoys being stronger. Maybe he wants you to be weak, little hare.
Eni's heart skipped a beat in her chest before it suddenly started hammering wildly. Somehow, without her even noticing it had happened, her own thoughts had given way to a voice that wasn't her own. And not just any voice, but the most awful one of all the ones that had ever come to her. It was the voice of the wind, high and cruel and sharp.
You're not really the wind, Eni thought, squeezing her eyes more tightly shut, trying to focus on the voice to the exclusion of all else. Dimly, she was aware that the Slayer's fingers were squeezing more tightly against hers, but it might as well have been taking place in the Southern Khaganate, it felt so distant. All other sounds were blotted out until only that voice remained, and Eni felt as though she was floating.
Then what am I? the voice asked, and there was a cruelly teasing undertone to it.
You're just a part of me, Eni thought, but the words felt pitifully weak. The voice laughed that cold, mocking laugh it had. Of course I am, it said, So what now?
Eni knew she was supposed to reject the voice, but she realized she had no idea how. It laughed again, and for the first time Eni realized that except for the pitch it was her own laughter she was hearing back. Haven't I always looked out for you? the wind that was not the wind said, You don't have to push me away. Would you cut off your own arm? Put out your own eye? No. Of course not.
Eni hesitated, and the voice kept speaking. That's what you'll be doing if you reject me, Eni. Cutting off a piece of yourself. And for what? You're so close to true power now.
Eni didn't let it continue. I want control, Eni thought, I want—
You can have it all, the voice interrupted, and now there was no distinguishing it from her own voice, You've already accepted. Look!
In her mind's eye, the void gave way to her surroundings, sharper and so vivid that they felt unreal. The grass caught the sun and almost glowed with its own inner light, and when Eni looked up the sky was alive in a way that was beyond anything she had ever seen. It was the patterns and the currents of the air itself, suddenly visible in a way that had nothing to do with what she was seeing. It beckoned to her, calling for her to reach out and grab it.
I want to fly.
Eni couldn't tell whether it was her own thought or that of the voice. The distinction between the two of them had vanished, and the ribbons of the wind wound their way around her like a gentle embrace. Her feet left the ground, no more than by an inch or two, and then—
There was a sudden painful pressure around her paw as she came crashing back down, sprawling to the ground. Eni opened her eyes to reality, which was somehow colorless and dull compared to what she had seen inside her mind. The Slayer had a firm grasp on her wrist, and Eni flinched at the look on his face. His eyes were the only thing not washed out, positively blazing with anger, and his lips curled back from his muzzle to expose his glistening teeth. "What were you thinking, rabbit!" he shouted, and Eni could feel the pressure from his voice in her chest, "I told you not to use magic."
His expression smoothed over and his voice got quieter, but it was still tight and prickly. "I told you," he said, and then he let go of her wrist.
"I… I didn't mean to," Eni began, but Tsar's response was instant.
"You did," he said, "You want power."
The wolf's paws closed into fists at his sides as he scowled down at her. "I thought…" Eni began, and she swallowed hard before she could continue, "I thought I could master it. That's what I want."
The Slayer didn't respond as Eni managed to sit up, and he didn't offer her his paw to help, either. But as grim as his face remained, that awful look had gone out of his eyes. He was still watching her warily, though, and Eni looked down before she kept speaking. "I… I've… I mentioned the slavers to you before," she said quietly, and after a moment he nodded once.
The years rolled back and Eni remembered what it was like to be thirteen again, leaving Siverets for the first time. Until she found the Slayer nothing had compared to the excitement she felt as the ship went out into the ocean far enough that Siverets was barely visible, the buildings turning into white and red smears and the seals in the harbor nothing more than black specks, and then kept going until there was no land in sight at all. She had been the only passenger, the hold otherwise full of pearls and fish, but the crew had been friendly in an indulgent sort of way, amused at how eager she was to travel to the Cradle.
Eni hadn't minded. She had spent years dreaming of her journey, and it had all started so smoothly. While the ship cut across the waves Captain Jeito had filled her ears with tales of the strange and exotic, all of the things that she couldn't wait to see for herself. The Faceless Kings of Vornstrom, so old that the chisel marks where the statues had been vandalized were barely visible. The markets of Ghabarahata, where anything that could be imagined could be purchased and absolute anonymity was enforced through full body coverings. The mines of Adlivun, which made the city so rich that even the guards decorated their armor with diamonds and gold, as grand and majestic as any king.
But Terregor captured Eni's imagination most of all. Captain Jeito had been to the city before, and while the serow had never set foot in the Linrathrous Library his second-hand stories had been enough to make Eni's eyes grow wide. The wing of the building reserved for stories concerning the Slayer, Jeito had said, was nearly as large as all of Siverets itself, rows upon rows of shelves holding an almost uncountable number of books and scrolls and tablets. The librarians of the University of Terregor were the masters of this knowledge and more, and the captain had shrugged philosophically when Eni asked him if the library was magical.
"Perhaps," he had said with a laugh, "Or perhaps not. The inquisitors surely wouldn't stand for it. But there is more to the world than what I have seen."
The serow's face had turned serious then, his pale green eyes thoughtful. "Not all of it is pleasant, young miss. An old friend of mine runs a convoy from Nahrstrom to the Circle. It'd be no more than a month's wait in Nahrstrom, should you wish to go with her."
But at thirteen, the idea of not pushing onward to the Circle the instant she made landfall on the continent was unimaginable. Eni had paused only long to purchase supplies with a few of the pearls she had carefully hidden away in the bottom of her satchel before leaving Siverets and then hit the road without company. Eni had never before realized how utterly alone a mammal could be; Siverets sprawled to cover virtually all of the tiny island the village had been built atop, and on Jeito's ship a member of the crew was never more than a few feet away.
On the open road, though, there was more open space than Eni had ever dreamed of. The landscape that stretched to the horizon as she left Nahrstrom could have fit Siverets hundreds of times over, but virtually all of it was wild and untamed. She had spent the first night of what would be many on the road alone, the only light her own little fire and the receding glow of Nahrstrom itself. Ahead there had been nothing but blackness, and Eni hadn't let go of her trident all that night.
Eni blinked, and she was back on the road to Tormurghast, sitting on the ground with the Slayer standing above her. He was waiting with a patience that was more than a little surprising, his body utterly devoid of any sort of tension. "I wasn't born in the Circle," Eni said at last, "I traveled here years ago."
She could have said so much more, but sometimes simple was best. That was a piece of advice the Archivist had once given her, and Eni took a deep breath as she tried to hold onto it. "I… I ran into slavers a few weeks outside of Nahrstrom."
The words were simple but the memories were not. Eni tried to put her thoughts in order but didn't know what to say. When she had taken the route, the Kingdom of Karanor had still existed, the stubbornly independent region only a year away from invasion by the Jaws as they launched the surprise campaign that had eventually pushed their borders all the way west to the Gulf of Nahr. It was something that Eni sometimes turned over in her mind; if she had left for the Circle only months later, she would have arrived in the middle of a war. It had taken the Jaws nearly three years to win their war, but there was no telling what might have happened in a kingdom under siege. Perhaps being forced to go immediately south with other refugees would have been safer. Perhaps her parents never would have let her leave Siverets in the first place if the news of war had come before Eni's departure.
Or perhaps things would have been far worse.
Eni told herself that no mammal could know what might have been and wondered at whether magic could really tell the future. She'd have to ask Tsar sometime, but it didn't seem like the right moment. The Slayer stood as still as a statue, seeming not even to breathe as his cloak rippled around him. "They were wolves," Eni said, "Like you."
There had been three of them, the tallest of them topping seven feet and the other two not far behind. Their faces had been full of cruel delight when she awoke with her arms already tied behind her back. "A lucky day," the shortest of the three had said.
His face was awful, a thick scar that ran from the bottom of one ear and through the ruined remnants of one eye to the corner of his muzzle quirking his mouth into a permanent sneer. "Lucky for us, little one. Maybe not for you," he added, and the three wolves had laughed.
Their laughter had been cold and somehow humorless, and although Eni's heart had started to beat like a drum she had held her head high and done her best to stare them down. "You can have purse if you let me go," she had said, her voice cracking only slightly as her Nihian accent came on thickly.
The wolves had found that hilarious, breaking into jagged fits of laughter that sent a cold spike down Eni's spine. "You think you're in any position to negotiate?" the tallest of the wolves had said.
He might almost have been handsome were it not for the rotted teeth and fetid breath that every word exposed. "We're taking your life," the middle wolf crooned, holding out a knife and running it along Eni's chin as gentle as a breeze.
His eyes were mismatched, one pale and one dark, and the thick fur of his head and neck stuck out in untidy spikes. "But how is the question, isn't it?" he had added in a low voice, seeing Eni tremble, "How will you give us your life?"
Eni's fear had reached a fever pitch and she had reached out for the power inside of her, the power that could call out to the whispers of the world around her. Sometimes she had made the wind blow harder or fires burn brighter, and once even flipped a boulder. Please, Eni had silently pleaded in her head, I need it now.
Nothing had happened.
The shorter, scarred wolf had nudged the one with the knife to Eni's throat. "Let's see what we've caught, eh?" he said, and the wolf obliged, ripping off Eni's hood.
Eni had heard the silk give way, the sound of it tearing almost like a sighed word. "By the Mother!" the tall wolf had cried, his black and brown teeth on full display and his sour breath right in Eni's nose, "I've never seen a rabbit so big."
"Not even full grown," the wolf with the mismatched eyes added, leering into her face, and he had reached out with the paw that wasn't holding the knife to pull on one of Eni's ears.
She had cried out, the humiliation somehow worse than the pain. "An Aberrant, too," the wolf had said, looking at Eni's long and scalloped ear.
Tears had filled Eni's eyes and her own words had abandoned her. She tried willing the energy inside herself to come but it remained stubbornly elusive, refusing to so much as stir. "This one'll fetch a good price," the scarred wolf had said, and he motioned to the tallest of the trio, "Put her with the other."
Eni had been roughly lifted and thrown over the wolf's shoulder as easily as a sack of flour; she hadn't seemed to burden him even slightly. She had squirmed helplessly, but whichever one of the wolves had bound her had done a good job; the ropes only got tighter as she struggled. Eni had caught a glimpse of her campsite, her own satchel turned inside-out and its contents scattered around her fire, before she was dumped into a small cart with high walls and a canvas roof.
Had she been alone, the cart would have been just barely large enough for her to stretch out, but there had been another mammal in the cart. She was a middle-aged female antelope, and her body seemed rail-thin beneath her ragged and stained tunic. Her eyes were fever-bright as she regarded Eni, the sides of her muzzle flecked with foam. "Liv," she croaked, and to Eni it had sounded as though there was a horrible wetness in the antelope's lungs, "Liv, you came for me."
The antelope had waved one bound hoof at Eni in a feeble and shaky patting gesture before bursting into a coughing fit that wracked her entire frail body. Eni had regarded her fellow prisoner with mute horror; she had never before seen someone in such dire need of medicine. The wolves had seemed indifferent to the antelope's plight, settling themselves down around Eni's fire for the night.
How Eni made it through that night she didn't know. She hadn't dared scream out, too afraid of what the wolves might do if she upset them or disturbed her fellow prisoner. The antelope had fallen into a shallow and fitful sleep, her breathing weak and labored. Eni had tried the only thing she could do, but no matter how much she strained she just didn't seem capable of calling on the spirits.
Eventually, though, morning had come after an endless stretch of sleepless hours. The scarred wolf had been the first of the slavers to awaken, and he had grinned horribly at Eni through the slats of the cart. "You look tasty, rabbit," he had said, licking at his lips in a grotesque and vaguely obscene fashion, "Maybe I'll try a bite before we reach the market, eh?"
Eni had shaken her head, her mouth suddenly dry as she stared at the knife tucked into the wolf's belt. It was long and cruelly barbed, the gleaming blade speckled with rust.
"No?" the wolf had asked, laughing, "No? I don't think you understand. The strong take what they want. The weak give it up."
He had casually curled the fingers of one paw around the hilt of his dagger, taking another step forward, closing the few paces that remained between him and the cart. "The— The Slayer didn't," Eni had said suddenly.
Her voice was wavery, but she had found it, and it seemed to get stronger as she kept speaking. "He was stronger than anyone and he fought for the weak. He'd be ashamed of you. Of all of you for calling yourselves wolves!"
The other two wolves seemed to have been roused by Eni's outburst, and they were getting up from the ground, moving to stand at the ugly wolf's side. "You think the Slayer didn't take what he wanted?" the scarred wolf sneered, "Then you're a fool. If he was here I'd be waiting my turn."
The wolf had pulled out his knife as the other two wolves chuckled appreciatively, obviously enjoying the helpless tears that had come to Eni's face. Impotent rage filled Eni's heart, and she was suddenly angrier than she was frightened. The wolves who had captured her were the lowest of the low, marauding bandits without an ounce of honor or nobility. They were the ones who deserved to be hurt, not her, and yet she couldn't do anything.
Let me take care of them.
Eni had gasped as the voice filled her head, a voice that was high and sharp and as cold as winter. The power within her had leaped, grabbing for the whispering voice of the wind, and Eni made no effort to stop it.
What had happened next was a jumble in Eni's memories, everything happening so quickly and yet stretching out in her mind. The cart and the ropes binding her had exploded off as though under incredible pressure. A maelstrom of furious wind had surrounded her, howling like one of the summer squalls that rarely rocked Siverets, and a cloud of debris swirled and danced. Dirt kicked up by the storm had made the patterns of the wind visible, tracing bizarre patterns, and the wolves had all fallen to the ground clutching at their throats, their eyes and tongues bulging pitifully as they futilely gasped for air.
The tallest wolf had managed to remain on his knees, but a fusillade of wooden splinters from the ruins of the cart, the smallest piece longer than Eni's arm, had shot through him as though he was a pincushion. The power in Eni had snapped and crackled as though full of savage pleasure, and then it vanished as suddenly as a candle being put out. Eni had staggered to her feet, awed by the damage she had caused. Her former campsite looked as though a tornado had touched down, the ground churned into a muddy mess and the remains of the cart scattered across hundreds of yards. The wolves had been unquestionably dead, and Eni had looked away from their twisted corpses in revulsion only to spot the antelope.
"I've never been sure," Eni said.
She had done her best to describe what the slavers had done and how she had killed them, and Tsar had listened in contemplative silence. Having reached the end of her story, she had almost hoped he would interrupt, but he remained quiet. "I don't know if I… If I'm the one who killed the antelope," Eni admitted, and saying the words out loud seemed to ease some of the burden, "I couldn't see any injuries on her, and I've never seen anyone so sick. Maybe it was just her time. But maybe…"
Eni trailed off, and the Slayer moved at last, taking a seat on the ground facing her. "You think if you could have controlled the magic you could have acted sooner," Tsar said quietly, looking right into her eyes.
Eni nodded, too overcome to speak. He understood. A surge of relief washed over her as the Slayer reached out and offered her his paw. She stopped hugging her knees and accepted it, letting Tsar help her back to her feet. "I should have explained earlier," he said, and his voice was still quiet, "Why magic can't be used."
Eni recalled his dire pronouncement that magic cost too much, and she managed to say a single word. "Why?"
"It's called Theonecrosis," Tsar began slowly, "Too much magic will…"
He paused for a moment before continuing. "The magic you put out can cut reality like a blade, make it hemorrhage theurgy. There's no telling what that can do. It's the kind of devastation…"
The Slayer's eyes dimmed, somehow, and he seemed to struggle with how to finish his thought. "You can't even imagine," he said at last, and then looked away.
Eni walked in silence for another few paces, considering his answer before a horrible realization hit her. "Devastation like the Blight?" Eni asked softly.
Tsar looked back at her, his face a mask that showed no emotion, but his tail swept back and forth. "Yes," he said, and then he looked ahead.
Eni had never agreed with the idea that ignorance was bliss, but what Tsar's answer suggested was frightening in a way few things were. If the Blight was a result of someone using too much magic in Ctesiphon, it suggested that either they were careless, as Eni herself had very nearly been careless, or that they were indifferent to the cost in mammalian lives.
Eni wasn't sure which possibility was worse, but she also didn't have to ask which one Tsar thought was more likely. It was obvious he thought a mage of astonishing cruelty was responsible, but Eni couldn't imagine what possible reward could motivate a mammal to be so callous.
It was little wonder that the Slayer was so opposed to magic being used at all, let alone carelessly, and Eni felt a twinge of shame. "I understand," Eni said, "I'll try harder to contain my power."
Tsar nodded and then he turned on his heel and kept walking in the direction of Tormurghast.
Eni hastened to catch up with him, her mind abuzz. She wanted to hear more about the Theonecrosis and what Tsar knew of it, but she wasn't sure if it was the right time. There was, however, something she needed to say. "Tsar?" she asked, and he cocked his head to the side to show that he was listening.
"You saved me. Before I even met you, you saved me," Eni said, "I don't know why it worked when nothing else did, but hearing that wolf talk about you like that… It saved me."
The Slayer grunted in response. "And I know he was wrong about you," Eni continued, "I know you'd never deliberately hurt an innocent."
Tsar might blame himself for not being fast enough to reach a village in need, but Eni wasn't going to let him shoulder any additional responsibility for something he would never do. He hadn't even touched the plate of cooked flesh Ceslaus had put before him, and the idea that the Slayer had the same cruel desires as the slavers was an insult to the hero. He deserved to know that, and Eni was gratified when he spoke again.
"We'll practice again the next time we stop," he said, "We'll do better."
Eni nodded her agreement and they continued down the path together.