The spirit didn't answer Tsar's question. It reached out one spectral arm, and Eni was struck by the terrible reality of it. The shade wasn't a mammal in a costume or an elaborate puppet; either one would have been equally impossible. Athel's wraith had no form of its own, its entire being made from whirling motes of dust that caught the light inside the tavern and cast hazy shadows. It drifted closer to Tsar, its indistinct fingers reaching out as though trying to grasp him, and the wolf gave his whip-sword a small flick.
The blade burst into flames a mere instant before it scythed into Athel's torso. There was a brief flare of light, so bright that Eni's eyes filled with tears and shut themselves, and she heard every voice in the room cry out. When she could see again, blinking away dazzling spots of color, the spirit was gone.
Tsar had already slung his blade back around his waist, and he was looking at the bartender expectantly. The badger's eyes were so wide they seemed as though they were about to fall out of his head, his words coming in a quavering stream. "You— You— You—" he stammered, clutching at the bar so tightly that his blunt claws drove deep grooves into it, "Are you…"
The bartender swallowed hard, and when he spoke again his voice cracked. "Are you the Slayer?" he asked, so loudly that the words filled the room.
Without even waiting for a response the badger staggered away from his bar and prostrated himself on the floor before Tsar, and after a moment the other patrons in the tavern had done the same. Their murmurs all blended together in Eni's ears, disbelief and skepticism mixed with awe at what the wolf had done. In an instant Eni and Tsar were the only ones left standing, and she looked around, watching the eyes focused hopefully on her companion. A jolt went up Eni's spine that had nothing at all to do with the ghost Tsar had just banished; what she was witnessing was like a scene straight out of the Slayer's tales. Everything was perfect, from the ease with which he had defeated the supernatural problem plaguing a small town to the way that the peasants were humbling themselves before him.
But it didn't feel right.
There was no look of benevolent calm on Tsar's face; he didn't look the part of the conquering hero at all. He was simply a wolf, wreathed in a shabby and threadbare cloak, and his face was curled in what might have been annoyance. "The Slayer's gone," he said, his voice hard, "I'm a wanderer."
Eni could feel the collective disappointment like a punch to the gut. The air seemed to have been let out of the room, and for a moment no one said anything. Then the badger laughed, and there was a bitter edge to it that Eni hated. "Course you're not," the bartender said, "Of course. We do get travelers, but it's just…"
He shrugged helplessly, but Eni saw the answer in his eyes. He had wanted it to be true. But now that Tsar had denied it, the badger felt foolish. He'd probably tell himself that what he had seen was less impressive than he remembered, and the moment would fade and dim in his mind. "Just you panicking, Dorsey!" one of the moles called.
The patrons chuckled, somewhat uneasily, but when Dorsey called back, "Fuck you, Restin! If that's beer staining your trousers and not piss, then I'm the Slayer," the awe was fully gone as they roared with laughter.
Mammals crowded around Tsar, offering to buy him drinks and complimenting his skill with his weapon, but Eni recognized the tone. If Tsar had beaten the village's strongest mammal arm wrestling, their words would have hardly been any different. It seemed to her that mammals didn't want to accept the reality of magic, and so when they encountered it they tried to pretend after the fact that it had been nothing special. Restin's terror at seeing the shade would fade from his memory, Eni was sure, and before long he'd convince himself that it had only been his drink slopped on his lap.
The bitter tang of disappointment filled Eni's mouth even as she was jostled away from Tsar by the throngs of patrons, but he remained rooted in place, utterly unmoving. "How did she die?" he asked again, his eyes boring holes into Dorsey.
Eni thought she could feel a slight chill to the atmosphere in the tavern. Not an actual drop in temperature, but the sense that there was something uneasy passing between the patrons as they looked at each other. "Well, that's…" the bartender began; he was interrupted before he could get very far by a gopher who couldn't have been much older than Eni.
"Didn't get what she deserved!" he said, speaking loudly and with the overly precise diction of a mammal after one drink too many, "We should've—"
"Quiet!" a marmot hissed, grabbing the gopher's arm and shaking him, before adding in a much louder voice, "Just a terrible accident, really. She, ah, had a nasty fall, and at her age—well, you know why everyone called her 'Old,' of course—it was too much. And now it seems her spirit can't move on; she must have done something to offend the Mother. Nothing we ever saw, though. Isn't that right?"
The other patrons eagerly nodded and voiced their agreement, but from how Tsar's eyes narrowed Eni saw he didn't believe it any more than she did. Even if his ears hadn't been good enough to hear the whispered interjection from the marmot, the words had the obvious ring of a lie to them. "Is that so?" Eni asked, doing her best to sound polite.
From how the assembled crowd looked at her, Eni supposed they had mostly forgotten that she was there. "Yes," Dorsey replied stiffly, and she offered him her most sympathetic look.
Tsar's paw was resting rather casually on the hilt of his whip-sword, his cloak flung back from his shoulder to make the implied threat rather obvious, but Eni thought she knew a better way of getting answers. "That must be quite the loss for Traumweld," Eni said, "I know it is for us. We were supposed to pick up some herbs from her for a doctor back in Tormurghast, but…"
She heaved a sigh. "I guess we'll be going back with nothing," Eni continued, "Unless… Maybe she already had our master's order ready? I don't suppose you know where she lived, do you, Mister Dorsey?"
The badger's posture relaxed marginally. "Her hut's in the woods outside the village," he said, "Just off the path. You can't miss it. Normally I'd tell you to stay away, but from the way your guard uses that whip…"
He shot Tsar a look, seeming more impressed than intimidated by how the wolf had his weapon on display. "Do you think her shade's gone for good, then?" he asked Tsar, his tone hopefully, "Have you done this sort of thing before?"
"Perhaps," Tsar replied shortly, "We're going."
"You won't even stay for a drink?" Dorsey asked, sounding as though he didn't quite believe his ears.
Eni supposed that in his line of work the badger didn't often encounter mammals who would turn down a drink, particularly if offered so many free ones. But Tsar didn't answer with words; he simply turned on his heel and started walking for the door. Eni hurried after him, carefully forcing her way through the crowd that had been intent on hearing everything, and caught up with Tsar just before the door would have swung shut in her face.
"They're hiding something," Eni observed once they were a few paces past the tavern.
Tsar looked at her blandly; apparently it was so obviously true that he felt no need to comment. "Why didn't you tell them you're the Slayer?" she asked, "You must have seen the way they looked at you when—"
"I did," Tsar interrupted, his tone steely.
He didn't say anything else; the wolf kept walking up the path that led its way back to the surface level. From how his hackles were raised and his tail lashed side to side, it was obvious that he considered the matter settled, and Eni tried a different topic. "Does every mage leave a ghost behind when they die?" she asked.
"No such thing," Tsar replied, his words still quite curt.
Eni looked at him, but the wolf was resolutely looking forward and didn't meet her eyes. "Then…" Eni began slowly, "What did we see in the tavern?"
"An echo," he answered, as though that would have explained things.
"What does that mean, though?" Eni asked.
Tsar didn't answer for a moment, but from how his face softened marginally Eni could tell he was actually considering how best to answer her question. They continued making their way up and out of the village for nearly an entire level of the spiral before he spoke again. "Water doesn't have a shape," he said, "Pour it into a vase, it takes that form. Pour the vase into a bucket and the same thing happens."
"That's right," Eni said, nodding.
She didn't know where he was going with his comparison, but at the moment she had no problem following along. "The water's not a part of the vase or the bucket," he said, starting to speak somewhat more slowly, "Imagine the vase is one mage, and the bucket another. The water is like theurgy."
"You said some things could retain theurgy," Eni replied, and Tsar nodded.
"But what does that have to do with echoes?" she asked.
"What happens if you take a vase full of water and leave it outside in the dead of winter?" he said, answering her question with one of his own.
Eni frowned. "It freezes," she said.
"Once the water's frozen, you can break the vase away," Tsar said, "What's that leave?"
"Well, you'd end up with a block of ice shaped like the vase," Eni replied.
"Understand?" Tsar asked.
Eni thought for a moment. "So…" she began slowly, frowning as she chose her words, "The water's not a part of the vase. It just takes the same shape, and the cold weather sort of… locks it into that shape. Which means…"
She paused for a moment, aware of Tsar's eyes upon her. "If… If a mage dies," she said, "Theurgy can take their shape. But it's not really them, is it? It's a sort of crude copy. And if it's like how a block of ice will melt, it won't hold its shape forever."
Tsar nodded once, and he almost looked pleased that she understood. "So a mammal's echo isn't their soul?" she asked.
"Ever seen a soul?" Tsar asked quietly.
"No," Eni admitted, "But before today, I had never seen an echo, either."
Tsar simply grunted, and they continued in silence as they passed more shops and homes, all of them closed for the night. Many of the homes, Eni noticed, had lamps burning in the windows, the curtains making the shadows gauzy and dreamlike. She supposed that meant that it wasn't only the mammals in the tavern who were frightened of Old Athel's echo returning, and for an instant she wondered if thinking the name was enough to summon the mage.
Nothing happened, though, and Eni asked the next question that occurred to her. "So what'll happen when you die or I die?" Eni asked.
It was a morbid question, but if Athel wasn't a particularly powerful mage she had to wonder what the strongest possible mages would leave behind. "If I can die before the end of the world I'll consider myself lucky," he said after a moment's consideration.
With that, his focus seemed to turn inward again, as though he was lost in his own thoughts, and Eni doubted that he'd answer any more questions.
When they were nearly out of the village, Eni heard the pounding footsteps of someone running toward them and grabbed Tsar's arm. He stiffened at the touch, but Eni gestured with her head back the way they had come. For a moment his face was puzzled, but then his eyes sharpened as whoever was coming after them must have gotten close enough for the wolf to hear.
He turned as smoothly and as quickly as a potter's wheel, peering down the spiraling road they had walked up, and Eni did the same. The brightly lit lanterns lining the walls of the earth that Traumweld was carved into made it easy enough to see who was pursuing them, and to Eni's eyes it didn't look like anyone particularly threatening.
It was the gopher who had tried explaining the truth of what had happened with Athel, and as he kept running, swaying a bit from side to side, Eni turned to Tsar. "Did you know someone was going to follow us?" she asked.
The wolf didn't answer, and his muzzle remained as severe as it always did. For an instant, Eni thought she saw something she had never seen before in his eyes. But then the moment passed and his face was utterly neutral, staring down at the approaching gopher. The mammal waved his arms, as though it was not obvious that he had gotten their attention, and Eni was surprised that he hadn't started shouting for them to wait. He managed to hold his tongue until he was within a few feet of them, even as he bent over and rested his palms on his knees as he gasped for breath after his uphill run. "Gotta…" he wheezed, "Warn you…"
He was obviously desperate to speak, but it took him a while before his chest stopped heaving for air, filling Eni's nose with the bitter smell of whatever he had been drinking. "I'm Pelcis," he said, pounding one paw against his chest, "Pelcis Wainwright. Lived here my whole life. But what happened…"
His face screwed up as though he was on the verge of tears; his eyes looked overly bright but he sounded as though his exercise had sobered him up at least a little. "Never seen anything like it," he said, "I knew Old Ath—"
He caught himself and almost bit his own tongue in his hurry to close his mouth. His eyes darted fearfully back and forth, but when no echo appeared he continued, lowering his voice, "The witch. Knew her all my life. So I gotta tell you."
"What do you need to say, Mister Wainwright?" Eni asked, shooting for a soothing tone.
"Gotta tell you," he repeated, anxiously fiddling with his paws.
Eni shot a glance at Tsar; the wolf was paying keen attention to the much shorter mammal, his eyes tracking Pelcis's. The gopher licked his lips anxiously, and then plunged ahead. "She never would have hurt anyone," he blurted, "She was odd, sure. Kept to herself, mostly. And when she came down to the village, she was always talking to mammals who weren't there. Full conversations with thin air, you know. But…"
Pelcis's eyes darted about. "Listen," he said, dropping his voice, "My son's a good lad. Eight years old now, and I do my best to keep him respectable."
"I'm sure you do," Eni said; the gopher sounded almost as though he was babbling, but she had a dim idea of where he was going.
"But sometimes… Sometimes his friends goad him on, you see? Last spring, he, well, he threw a rock at her."
The gopher cringed, clearly embarrassed by his son's petty cruelty. "Bounced right off one of her horns. And you know what she did?"
"What's that?" Eni prompted.
"Just turned and looked at him. Said it wasn't a nice thing to do. That was it. Kept going about her business while my son and his little friends ran off. I gave him a piece of my mind when I heard about it, let me tell you, and he was properly ashamed. Spent the next month terrified of what sort of revenge the witch would take; he had nightmares of her turning him into a rock and chucking him in the pond. So the next time she came to the village, my son was tripping over himself. Petrified, but he wanted to say sorry. And so he's a blubbering mess as he goes up to her, so much so you can hardly make out what he's saying, and she just gives him a hug and moves on. That was that," Pelcis said, fumbling over his words.
"You see what I mean? My boy got nothing worse than a guilty conscience. The witch loved children; she'd never hurt one, not on purpose," the gopher added, gesturing emphatically.
"On purpose," Tsar repeated, the words not quite a statement and not quite a question.
Pelcis looked at the ground, his ears drooping back. Eni glanced around, but there was no one nearby, the street utterly deserted. "It had to be an accident," the gopher said, "Had to be."
He sucked in a breath of air between his large front teeth with a wince. "I think… I think she was just surprised is all. She couldn't have meant it," he said.
"Please," Eni urged, trying to keep her words gentle, "Tell us."
Pelcis eyes darted to Tsar's waist, where the glint of his whip-sword was just visible, and after a moment he spoke again. "You… You can get rid of it again, can't you?" he asked the wolf timidly, "If the… If the ghost comes back."
Tsar gave him a severe nod, and it was enough for the gopher to pluck up his courage. His back straightened and Eni could see him trying to hold in his shivers of fear. "Then… Then I'll show you," he said, "Come on."
He led them back down into the village, but rather than stopping in the tavern he must have abandoned he continued taking the spiraling path down to the lowest level of the village. Eni didn't dare say anything in case it caused Pelcis to lose his nerve, and Tsar was as silent as ever as they continued walking. After only a few minutes they reached where the stone ended, lush grass growing freely in the large and oval park that was dominated by a pond at its center. The water was still and placid, reflecting the lantern light and seeming almost to glow from within.
The gopher walked toward the pond, and for an instant Eni thought he would go in. Instead, he stopped at its edge and gestured at a small marker made out of white marble that looked very freshly made. The words carved into its surface were still sharp and nothing overgrew it or hid it from view. The plaque only had two lines of text, both quite simple:
In Eternal Memory
"She was eleven," Pelcis said quietly, and he sounded utterly sober, "Loved the water more than damn near anything else. Swam in it just about every day it wasn't frozen over."
He paused, and Eni let him gather his thoughts. "Her parents are farmers, just like most of the village. Stand out a bit for being otters, but good folk. And Yeltas… She took something of a shine to Athel."
Pelcis didn't seem to notice that he had spoken the taboo name, and Eni felt no desire to interrupt him. Her fur stood on end, and she could almost make out two voices talking, one high and bright with youth and the other as old and worn as a rock on the beach. "Yeltas wanted to learn medicine," Pelcis said, "Always so eager to see Athel, she was."
The gopher stopped speaking, his eyes shining and full of helpless tears. He was looking down at the marker by the pond's edge, not at the trees that surrounded it, and Eni saw the echo of the witch. It was spun out of moonlight itself, the echo's body glowing dimly while its eyes burned as mournfully as the longest night of winter. Athel stayed silent and watchful, rippling and shimmering, from where she had drifted under a tall branch. Tsar was ignoring the specter, focusing all his attention on Pelcis, and Eni tried to do the same even as she was aware of those horrible glowing eyes upon her. "I saw it happen," Pelcis said, his voice so low and trembly that Eni could barely make out the words, "I'd finished fixing a cart and was making sure it rolled right on the grass. Just over there."
He gestured feebly at a spot perhaps a dozen feet from where they stood. "Athel was where we are, just looking down into the water. Silent, or at least talking so quiet I couldn't hear. And then Yeltas came running up to say hello, and…"
The ghostly figure of Athel remained utterly still as it continued its vigil from where it floated, the moonbeams that made it up paling in comparison to the uneven light of the lanterns surrounding the park. "It was… The water rose up. Like a bucket being poured out, but the other way around," Pelcis said, "Covered that poor little otter's entire head, and then…"
The gopher gave a choking sob, and although he couldn't finish he didn't need to. Horror welled up in Eni's stomach, and she glanced at the silently watching echo. "The witch ran off after that. Me and a few others were close enough to try helping Yeltas, but… There wasn't anything we could do. Some of the other villagers put a posse together and, well…"
"They hanged her," Tsar observed quietly, speaking in a low tone.
His voice was soft, almost sympathetic. He bent down, and for a moment Eni thought he was going to put a reassuring arm on the gopher's shoulder. Instead, the wolf sank into a crouch, his cloak pooling around him as he dipped his fingers into the pond and let the water run between them. Pelcis seemed to be on the verge of saying something before he gave up, making nothing more than a strangled sound. It took the gopher a moment to gather himself, and at last he nodded, swallowing hard.
"Never would have believed it if I didn't see it myself," he said, "I don't… I don't think Athel understood what she did. My wife was out in the woods that day and said she saw her picking flowers, like she didn't have a care in the world. Couldn't have been more than an hour or two before the posse…"
Pelcis swallowed again. "Well, you know," he said, "Yeltas's father said Old Athel didn't have a shred of remorse, but I don't think that's so. She didn't say a word, when the posse said why they'd come for her. Just let them take her, quiet as you please. It couldn't have been anything but an accident."
"Thank you," Eni said quietly, "That must have been awful to remember."
She spared a glance at the witch's echo, and as she looked into what passed for its eyes it slowly broke apart, dissolving first into glittering silvery light like a swarm of fireflies and then into nothing at all. "How long ago?" Tsar asked, standing back up.
"Two weeks, about," Pelcis said, looking at the wolf curiously.
"Then maybe we'll still be able to find what we came for. The herbs she was supposed to gather for us to pick up, I mean," Eni said hastily, directing the words at Tsar; so far as the gopher knew the two of them were simply a porter and a mercenary, but the wolf's utter disregard for social niceties must have seemed a little unusual.
Pelcis sighed. "Life keeps going on, doesn't it?" he said philosophically, giving the marble marker one last look, "For most of us, anyway."
"It does," Eni told him, "And we'll be careful. From the sounds of it, I don't think we need to worry about the ghost."
Tsar's ears twitched as if he was mildly irritated with her choice of word, but he didn't voice an objection. "No, no, but you can't be too careful," Pelcis said, "And I couldn't just let you go to her hut, not knowing what might be waiting for you. Don't think she'd hurt strangers, but…"
He shrugged helplessly. "We'll be careful," Eni repeated, and thanked him again before waving goodbye.
Tsar wasted no time before starting back for the path, but Eni spared a glance back at Pelcis; the gopher stood in place, looking out over the water. She wondered what sorts of thoughts were running through his head, but she couldn't banish the sickening idea that came to hers.
What would she do if she accidentally killed a child?
Eni shuddered, the thought gnawing at her. What if she lost control so utterly that she spent most of her time talking to voices no one else could hear, about utter madness no one else could understand? Would she even realize how monstrous of a deed she had done, or would it be so utterly unremarkable that she wouldn't even notice?
Eni glanced at Tsar, and at the look on his face the urge to say anything died. His features were set in an expression of hard focus, his eyes sharp and his fangs just barely visible. They walked the rest of the way in silence, and as Dorsey had said it was simple enough to find the path through the woods close to Traumweld. There was no doubt in Eni's mind that the forest had been deliberately planted; the trees grew in a perfect grid, likely by loggers ensuring that there would always be more to replace what they cut down. The path was just as straight as the neat rows of trees, and so wide that none of the branches growing on either side reached far enough out to snag at Eni's clothes.
After they had walked perhaps a quarter mile, Eni saw a sign that had been hammered into the dirt with an arrow and a single word she could just make out by the light of the moon and the stars. Although whoever had made the sign hadn't written very neatly, there was no mistaking that it said "Athel" and pointed to a much narrower path off the main one. Someone seemed to have hacked away overhanging branches, but they must have been much shorter than either Eni or Tsar because they both had to crouch to avoid getting hit in the face. Eni wished she had a machete, as she doubted her knife would be much use, but she plodded on, hunkering down behind Tsar as he led the way.
What they came to was a surprisingly homey little hut, built on the stumps of six trees using their logs. Mud had been used to fill the cracks, and although it had only a single crude door and no windows, Eni didn't think that the wind could get in. There was a small and rusty chimney jutting out through the mossy wooden shingles of the roof, but the cabin was as still and silent as Eni had expected it to be.
Tsar paused and took several experimental sniffs of the air. His hackles rose, his untidy mane sticking up away from his head and making him look larger than his thin frame suggested. "She's been here," he said, his voice low but full of menace.
"Who?" Eni asked, although she thought she already knew the answer.
The wolf uttered a single word. "Astrasa," he said.