"When?" Eni breathed.
The word came out so low that she could barely hear it herself over the sudden pounding of her heart. Tsar didn't answer, his eyes narrowed and locked onto the shack, but Eni needed to know. "Is… Is she still here?" she asked, just as quietly, glancing around the forest as she strained her ears for the slightest sound.
She didn't hear anything but the sigh of the wind through the leaves; her insides seemed to have frozen at the idea that the leopardess might suddenly step out from behind a tree trunk. "No," Tsar said quietly after a moment, "Weeks ago."
Eni let out a shaky breath before forcing herself to inhale deeply, feeling a frown cross her face. "The Woemaker visited Athel before she died?" she asked, "But…"
Tsar was standing still, his nostrils still flaring as he stood facing the witch's home. "But Astrasa's part of the Jaws delegation," Eni said slowly, "They've been in Tormurghast for almost a month! She couldn't just… Just sneak away for a day without anyone noticing. And Aza wouldn't—"
"Barghest," Tsar interrupted, not sparing a glance at Eni's face, "She has one."
Eni's frown deepened; Aza had once claimed that a barghest's speed was matched only by its bloodlust. It certainly hadn't sounded like a joke, either; the tiger had been deadly serious in a way he rarely was. If Astrasa had somehow managed to avoid her own guards and get out of Tormurghast, she might have been able to cover the same distance it had taken her and Tsar almost half a day in no more than two or three hours with her mount running at full tilt. Depending on how long the leopardess had stayed in Traumweld, perhaps it hadn't been long enough for anyone in Tormurghast to realize she was gone.
Or maybe no one had cared.
That possibility struck Eni as the more frightening one; Aza had always boasted of the supreme dedication to duty that the League soldiers embodied. But Lieren had already successfully gotten one of her soldiers to feed lies to Renald, and there was no telling how far her grasp extended. Perhaps covering up an absence of several hours had been no more burdensome for the Woemaker than ordering a beer in a tavern. There was no way to tell without returning to Tormurghast, though, and Eni forced herself to take a steadying breath.
The shack that stood before her and Tsar seemed almost unassuming in the silvery light of the moon, but as Eni looked closer she saw something she hadn't noticed before. The rough wooden planks of the crude door had a massive dent just above the rusty length of chain that served as a handle, and the frame was splintered in the same spot. It was obvious that the door had been forced open, and Eni wondered if it had been the work of the angry villagers or of the Woemaker.
"Can you tell what's inside?" Eni asked, looking at Tsar.
"Theurgy," he said, without hesitation, and then he started walking toward the shack with purposeful strides.
Eni hastened to follow even as her heart quickened, but the closer she got the more wrong it felt. She couldn't think of another word that fit; the air around the building was oddly thick, as though she was trying to wade through water. Even the quality of the light filtering down through the trees seemed hazier than it should have, the colors of the forest looking strangely muted and dim.
If Tsar noticed anything like what she did, it didn't stop him. The wolf's face was resolute as he pushed the door open and strode inside, and when Eni entered behind him a gasp escaped her mouth.
There was everything she would have expected from the home of an herbalist hermit. A straw-stuffed mattress was shoved in one corner of the single room, the only other furniture a roughly-made wooden chest that seemed to double as a chair and a splintery table covered with little clay pots and the nubs of candles. Drying plants hung from the ceiling, infusing the air with a cloyingly spicy scent, and a corroded copper pot stood in the sooty fireplace.
But every available surface was covered with crude scrawls.
Eni turned around in a circle as she took in the words, which were all written in the same shaky letters. Some of them were nearly three feet tall, others no more than three inches, and the same words repeated over and over again. They covered the walls and the back of the door. They were etched into the surface of the table. They were even daubed in ash against the rough fieldstones of the fireplace itself.
AYES SEE ALL
There were strange drawings carved between the misspelled words, and the little pictograms made Eni's blood run cold. Dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of eyes glared down at her and Tsar with malevolently slit pupils. They seemed to follow Eni as she turned, and for how poorly Athel wrote her art was disturbingly life-like; it looked like disembodied eyes were peering through gaps in every available surface, as though reality itself was splitting apart for some monstrous observer. Each was wreathed in a tangle of flames, some of them etched so deeply into the wood that Eni could have stuck her fingers in up to the second knuckle, and she was struck with a jolt of recognition.
The eyes appeared almost the same as the one she had seen when she had last tried the Mildeus Technique, and Eni wondered if Athel had heard a similar voice in her head. "What's it say, rabbit?" Tsar asked.
Eni almost jumped at the sound of his voice; she had nearly forgotten that the wolf was in the room with her. He looked somewhat frustrated, glaring at the words he couldn't read himself, and Eni took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down. "There are three phrases," Eni said, striving for her best academic tone and almost succeeding in capturing it, "Repeated over and over."
She pointed out an example of each in turn and spoke them aloud. "Does that mean anything to you?" she asked, a touch hopefully.
Tsar shook his head, and Eni reached out and touched the nearest carved word thoughtfully. "These are relatively recent," she said, "See how sharp the edges still are? And the insides of the logs haven't faded in color very much where they've been exposed to the air. More than a month old, I'd say, but less than three."
Tsar looked at her quizzically, and Eni suddenly laughed. She could hear a slight raggedness to the sound, but she smiled. "It's not that different from dating an artifact," she said, "And I'm pretty good at that."
For a moment he didn't say anything, and then he touched one of the carvings himself. "Something changed," he said quietly.
Eni nodded. He was right; there had to be a reason Athel woke up one day and decided to start covering the inside of her home with carved words and symbols after having spent years living in it. Perhaps she was simply mad, but Eni doubted it; from what Pelcis had described Athel hadn't seemed completely insane. But as Eni thought through the obvious sequence of events, she didn't see any kind of pattern. Presumably Athel had started her carvings sometime before Astrasa had shown up at her door. Were the carvings related to why the leopardess had wanted to see the witch?
And then there was the murder of the little otter who had apparently idolized her, which didn't make sense to Eni either. Athel's shack didn't contain a portrait of the otter, the way that a wealthy noble's home would, but she still got the sense that a child had shared the space. A clumsily sewn ragdoll had been carefully attached with clothespins to a small line over the fireplace, as though someone had cared enough to launder it and then make sure it dried. One of the jars on the table looked to be full of anise candies, and on the chest that served as a chair was a thick chunk of a log worn smooth on top. As she looked at it, Eni found it easy to imagine as a booster to allow Athel's much shorter student to sit next to her and still reach the table as she explained something, and for a moment she could almost see it.
But as Eni examined the hut more carefully, she saw what seemed like the signs of violence; some of the stones in the fireplace were cracked and one of the walls was scorched as though a red-hot poker had been touched to it in places. She rubbed a finger across the burn and her glove came away coated in crumbly ash. "Do you think Athel tried fighting Lieren?" Eni asked, looking down at the mark with a frown.
As she spoke the name, Eni sensed tingling in her skin, and when she turned to face Tsar she was unsurprised to see the spectral form of the witch watching mournfully from behind him. She seemed less put-together than she had in the village, the filmy haze of the dust that made up her body vague and only roughly mammal-shaped. The eyes still burned, but they were as dim as candles that had just been snuffed out.
"No," Tsar replied simply, ignoring the echo.
He was frowning in concentration, his nostrils flaring, and Eni glanced at the walls again to avoid looking into the terrible face of Athel's last imprint upon the world. "What do you think 'Promise' meant?" Eni asked, "When we were in the tavern, it—"
Before she could finish, the echo of Athel suddenly flared with a brilliant internal light, more motes joining together until the apparition was almost solid. But as the echo grew sharper and more distinct, it was no longer alone.
Another figure had formed, one that was even more ghostly than Athel had been at her haziest; it was perhaps as tall as Eni herself was but so blurry that it was impossible to tell what sort of mammal it was or its gender. But when it gestured with one arm, Eni knew exactly who it was.
Her gauntleted forearm was ghostly and translucent, but the wickedly sharp claws that the fingers ended in were perfectly clear and exactly how Eni remembered them. The echo of Astrasa spoke, but even Eni's ears couldn't make out the words. They were so badly garbled that it was like trying to eavesdrop on a conversation with her head underwater, and so faint that even the sounds Tsar's footpads made against the dirt floor as he turned to watch were louder.
Eni stole a glance at the wolf; he was staring at the two figures intently as Athel gestured emphatically with her staff. There was already a small divot exactly where it silently struck the floor, and Eni realized that they had to be watching something that couldn't have happened very long before Athel's death. "You dare…" the echo said, and Eni had to strain her ears to catch the words, which came so faintly that it was like listening to someone whisper from across a field in the middle of a thunderstorm.
"…would… defile the tomb if… Madness… never… allow to…" the shade said, pointing at the echo of Astrasa with one finger.
The echo of the leopardess replied, and while the words were just as impossible to make out as they had been the first time, Eni thought that there was a cruel and haughty tone to them nonetheless. Whatever Astrasa had said, it shocked Athel, whose ghostly form staggered back a pace. "You… —yer… inco—" the echo said, the words so badly garbled that Eni couldn't even get a sense of what she was trying to say.
The echo of Athel grew indistinct at its edges, the whirling motes of dust that made it up starting to drift apart. Astrasa's form simply fell apart like a bucket of sand being poured out, dissolving into a slowly spreading cloud that twinkled and sparkled before vanishing. The form of Athel reached out, as if she was trying to beseech Astrasa, and although the echo's mouth moved the only sounds it made were like the far-off hiss of the ocean against a rocky beach.
And then, just as Eni was about to ask Tsar a question, the echo of Athel became almost solid, pulling itself together. "It is promised!" it cried, its voice so strong that it seemed to shake Eni, "It is promised!"
The echo's face was contorted with enormous effort, its arms rising above its head as it spoke. It repeated the words over and over even as its shape began falling apart again, growing weaker all the while. At last, when the largest piece left of the shade was no bigger than Eni's thumbs, its voice grew too faint to hear, and then it drifted apart entirely.
Eni waited a moment, feeling a chill run down her spine, and wondered if the echo would flare back to life once more. After a minute that seemed to last an hour, Eni turned to Tsar. "What do you think—" she began to say, but she cut herself off as she looked at the wolf.
He had drawn his whip-sword without her noticing, and he was squeezing the hilt so tightly that his claws had cut tracks into his palm. Blood oozed out of his fist and trickled to the floor, but Tsar showed absolutely no sign of feeling it. His mane stuck out at odd angles and his pupils had become so constricted that his eyes looked like fathomless blue voids, the lids wide around them. His lips were peeled back from his muzzle in a terrible grimace, and he must have bitten his own tongue because his teeth were stained red and pinkish foam dripped from his mouth. Tsar's tail stuck out straight back, as unmoving as the rest of his body, and for an instant Eni was afraid that he had somehow died where he stood.
As she reached out to touch him he suddenly jerked back to life, his face twisted in fury as he slapped her arm away with a movement so quick she didn't see it. "Don't," he snapped, glaring at her as he took a step back out of her reach.
"Are… are you alright?" Eni asked, not moving from where she stood, "You look…"
"Fine," Tsar replied, although it was not even close to being true.
He looked weakened in a way that Eni couldn't quite describe. His gauntness had almost seemed to have become frailty, as though he was exceptionally delicate, and when he roughly wiped one sleeve against his mouth he looked terribly sick. But his eyes were almost normal as they locked onto hers, and there was enough strength in his gaze to make Eni take a step back of her own.
Tsar wrapped his whip-sword back around his waist with a single careless gesture, ignoring the splatter of blood he sent across the shack, and allowed his cloak to billow back around himself. "It spoke about defiling a tomb," he said, his voice supremely mild, but there was a sort of artificial note to it that Eni didn't like.
It seemed to cost him an incredible amount of effort to remain standing as though nothing had happened, and Eni took a deep breath. "Are you sure you're—"
"Enough, rabbit," he interrupted, and while there was heat to the words they had nothing like the venom he had spoken with as he had batted her arm aside, "There's nothing more here."
With that, he turned and walked out of the shack without even waiting for a response. Eni immediately set out after him, but he was stalking along the path away from Athel's hut so fast that she almost had to start jogging to keep up. "The tomb," Eni said, "Do you think that's Wordermund's tomb in Ghabarahata?"
She didn't want to allow the wolf to ignore whatever had happened to him, but Tsar was obviously willing to simply walk away if she tried probing. He dipped his head sharply without a word, but Eni supposed that the facts all aligned. The tomb of the long-dead emperor was the largest mausoleum in all the world, and if any of the half-forgotten legends were true Wordermund might have even been a mage himself.
But for as many times as Eni had visited Ghabarahata, she had never seen so much as the smallest flicker of magic there. Then again, she had never entered Wordermund's tomb, either, and if that was what Athel's echo had spoken of than "defiling" really was the only word that fit. Grave robbing certainly didn't seem to be beyond what Astrasa would engage in, although Eni still had no idea what exactly the leopardess had planned. "Why do you think the Woemaker came to Traumweld?" Eni asked.
Tsar didn't answer; they were walking along the narrow path that led back to the main road to the village. "It had to have been for Athel. Astrasa must have been asking her for… for help or information. And she refused," Eni continued, voicing her thoughts out loud, "And then after they talked, I think Astrasa must have… disguised herself somehow. I don't think Athel would have been able to run away the way Mister Wainwright said she did. She was too old for that. And the way he said Athel was silent as she waited by the water… It'd be like Ceslaus, right? Astrasa could make herself look like Athel, but she wasn't good enough at illusions to sound like her. So she just didn't talk."
"Probably," Tsar said, the word short and tense.
Eni paused a moment, wondering if she should let the matter rest, but she had to plunge on. "So maybe… Maybe Yeltas Green saw something and that's why Astrasa killed her," Eni said, "I'm sure Pelcis would have said something if anyone had seen a golden leopardess lurking around the village, so maybe the Woemaker just thought she had to get rid of the only witness. Or maybe it was just her way of getting Athel killed without having to murder her personally."
Eni looked at Tsar expectantly, but he didn't answer. The shade of Athel had reappeared, drifting behind them and formed mostly of pine needles and a few brilliant maple leaves that rippled and flowed in the breeze like a school of fish. It didn't have any light of its own besides what it caught from the moon, the browns and reds of its body making it a solemn spectator that did nothing more than watch as they continued to walk along. "Can you do something about that?" Eni asked, gesturing at the echo, "Is it… suffering, do you think?"
Tsar spared a glance at the shade and shook his head. "It's not alive," he said, "Doesn't feel anything."
"But it's scaring the villagers," Eni said, and the wolf shrugged.
"Not hurting them," he said simply, "It'll fade. Take about a month. Why banish it?"
"Well—" Eni began, but Tsar surprised her by cutting her off.
"Villagers deserve it," he said, a hard note creeping into his voice, "Need to live with what they did."
His words had taken on the staccato inflection Eni had come to associate with Tsar speaking when he didn't want to, saying as few words as he possibly could to get his point across. But as horrible as the idea was, she wasn't sure she could disagree. It was true that the villagers had seen what appeared to be an old and half-mad witch murder a child. But from what Pelcis had described, she doubted Athel's death had been very pleasant. They probably hadn't even bothered to rouse a magistrate; they must have done their version of justice with little more than a tree and a length of rope, no one bothering to wonder why it had happened or notice any of the things that Eni had simply by hearing the story related to her.
"I guess everyone does," Eni said quietly, "Live with our choices, I mean. But…"
They had come to the end of the path that led to Athel's shack, the main road standing before them, and Eni sighed. "We're not going to spend the night in Traumweld, are we?" she asked.
"You want to?" Tsar asked.
"Not really," Eni said, repressing a shudder as she glanced at the spectral form of Athel, still floating along behind them.
They continued in silence as they turned onto the path that led toward Ghabarahata and away from Traumweld, and as they walked Eni felt another icy chill run down the length of her back and to the tip of her tail. She turned around, and as she watched she could see the ghostly figure of Athel, her horns shimmering in the moon's brilliance, standing next to the sign that pointed to her shack. Red-orange leaves falling from the trees glowed like fading embers as they caught the light, swirling and drifting through Athel's form as the wind serenely whispered past.
For a moment, the old witch stood there, her arms outstretched, and then something much smaller and even hazier seemed to run toward her from the direction of the village and its warm glow. It was so indistinct that it could have been almost anything, but it seemed short and sleek with a thick tail that tapered gracefully. As it approached Athel, the witch's echo scooped it up into her arms and swung it around, her head thrown back as if laughing in delight. The old herbalist hugged the small and ghostly figure tight to her chest, and then, as though both had been nothing more than a trick of the moonlight, they dissolved into nothing.
Eni swallowed hard at the lump in her throat and turned around, clutching at the straps of her pack as she followed Tsar. They would catch up with Astrasa eventually, Eni knew. It wasn't a hope or a wish; it felt absolutely certain in her mind. She had seen the knowing look on the leopardess's face as she met Tsar, and she thought that whatever the Woemaker had planned would somehow involve him.
But for the first time since Astrasa had crushed her throat and nearly strangled her, the idea of meeting her again didn't send so much as the faintest twinge of fear through Eni's body. A clarity of purpose seemed to have descended on Eni, and as she stared at the dark path before her she vowed that she would be ready.