"Words that mean different things but sound the same spoken," Tsar said suddenly, "How are they written?"
It was the first he had spoken since they had started walking away from Traumweld, and for all the ways the wolf could have broken nearly half an hour of silence what he actually said certainly wasn't what Eni would have expected. "Well, that depends," Eni said after a moment's hesitation, "In Circi, they're usually different. Like reign, the word for what a king does when he's in power, isn't written the same way as rain, the word for the water that comes down from clouds."
Tsar nodded and then continued walking without saying anything more. With the comforting glow of Traumweld behind them, and Ghabarahata still so far off in the distance that it was like a dim star that had sunk below the horizon, there was nothing but moonlight to guide their way. The countryside around them was peaceful and still, the silence broken only by the ruffling of the long grass on either side of the road and the sighing of the trees as the night breeze swept fitfully past.
Tsar was a silvery shape at Eni's side, his tattered cloak looking almost as though it had been woven of light as it rippled in the wind. "Are there the opposite?" he asked at last, "Words said differently but written the same?"
"That's a really good question!" Eni said, and hoped that her answer hadn't come out sounding too patronizing.
Tsar glanced at her, his pale eyes seeming almost to glow. "And there are some, yes," Eni added, "The word for two or more female deer—does—is written the same as the verb for performing an action—does."
The wolf made a wordless sound of irritation. "Seems confusing," he said.
"It can be," Eni said, "But you can almost always tell by context what the right word is when you see it on a page."
"Context matters," he said quietly, and then he turned his head to look down the path again, "Show me."
He came to a stop without waiting for a response, shifting his bag off his back and setting it to the ground before looking back at her. Eni relished the feel of taking her own satchel off, its sudden absence making her realize just how heavily it had been weighing on her. Eni pulled out her knife, but just as she was about to bend over and scratch words into the ground she paused and then stood up straight. "Write all the characters you can remember first," she said, offering Tsar the blade, "Everything starts from the basics."
Rather than take her weapon, Tsar's tail snaked out from under his cloak and deftly pulled his own dagger free from where it had been hidden in the folds. The tip of the wolf's tail grasped it delicately, neatly giving the dagger a single flip and catching it by the blade so that it was the hilt that was presented to Tsar's right paw. The entire operation didn't take more than a few seconds, but it had happened with no apparent effort on Tsar's part; he hadn't even looked down to see what he was doing.
Tsar met her eyes, and then followed them to where she was looking. "How do you do that?" Eni asked.
Of all the things he had done in her presence, it wasn't even close to being the most impressive, but she had never seen anyone capable of such dexterity with a tail. "Always could," he said simply, "It's not like an arm or a leg. More like my tongue."
"Your tongue?" Eni said, but as she thought about it the more it made sense.
His tail was far more flexible than any normal mammal's limb, capable of such fine movement that it barely seemed to have any internal joints whatsoever. A tongue probably was the best comparison, and Eni made herself a mental note to write about it in her journal. "I wish I could do that," she said, "This is about the best I can manage."
She spun around so her back was to the wolf and willed her fluffy nub of a tail to twitch. "Not very impressive, is it?" she said, laughing as she looked over her shoulder and at his face.
He didn't smile or otherwise break composure at the rather pathetic demonstration, but Eni hadn't expected him to. She wondered if anything made him laugh; if there was something he found funny it wasn't anything she had been present for. "No," he said simply after a moment, and Eni chuckled as she turned back around.
"But that's enough of that," Eni said, and then gestured to the ground, "Why don't you show me what you remember?"
Tsar sank to his knees and began etching characters into the dirt with the tip of his dagger. Eni squatted across from him, watching as he worked, and smiled. Somehow, what had happened in Traumweld felt much farther away than the few miles they had managed to travel away from the village. Their silence felt almost companionable, and Eni wondered why the wolf had suddenly insisted on a writing lesson. She didn't mind, though, and as she watched Tsar painstakingly draw the Circi symbols into the ground she let the task utterly absorb her focus.
For someone who had just started learning, Tsar's memory was surprisingly good; although the characters he had written were somewhat uneven and malformed, he only got two of them backwards and one of them upside down. He recognized his mistakes almost immediately, hesitating and frowning down at them, and Eni barely had to prompt him before he wrote all three the right way. He listened carefully, his expression somber, as Eni wrote and explained a few examples of different homophones.
Tsar nibbled at his provisions while Eni did the same, but his attention was always on her rather than his food, and he carefully considered every question she asked before answering. Just as Eni began showing him how to tell which vowel sounds a word used, the wolf's eyes fixed on her, she found her explanation interrupted by a yawn that she couldn't hold in. "It's late," he said simply, and then he stood.
"I'm sorry," Eni said, stifling another yawn, "I guess I need some sleep."
Tsar nodded absently and began unpacking his bag, setting up his bedroll under a nearby tree. Eni made sure she positioned herself on the other side of the thick trunk and began to do the same; she had already learned that the wolf apparently didn't believe in wearing anything while he slept, and she didn't want to peep on him. From her ears alone, Eni could tell he was stripping off his clothes, but that appeared to be about all his evening preparations involved; after a moment she heard the sounds of fabric brushing against fur as he settled himself down under his bedding.
Eni's own nightly preparations took longer, and she tried doing them as quietly as possible before tucking herself under her blanket and staring up at the night sky. She thought about trying to squeeze in some time to write in her journal or work on finishing the outfit she was making Tsar, but her eyelids were incredibly heavy and she felt powerless to keep them open. All she could hear from Tsar's side of the tree was the wolf's breathing and the beat of his heart, which were both so slow that he could only be asleep. She yawned again, feeling her thoughts slow as sleep came to claim her. Eni felt as though she was floating on a cloud, her bedroll incredibly soft beneath her, and she hazily wondered if Rongen's airship would be as gentle.
And then she woke up.
Eni wasn't sure why at first; the sun wasn't even close to rising and she was still so groggy that her head swam as she looked back and forth for whatever had been enough to rouse her. There was nothing but the moon and the stars overhead, dappled through the branches and leaves of the tree she was under, and no one before her. As she listened, straining to hear everything she could, there was a sound she had never heard before.
Tsar was growling.
The rumbling was faint compared to his breathing, which was loud and so heavy that for anyone else it might have drowned out the choked little sounds he was making, but Eni could hear them clearly and her eyes widened as she got up. As she grabbed her trident and carefully lifted it as quietly as she could, Eni realized that she wasn't just hearing Tsar; she could feel each grumbling noise he made resonating in her chest and shaking her lungs. "Tsar?" she called quietly as she started slowly circling the tree, "Are you awake?"
No response came, but she could hear the wolf's heart, too, beating so fast that it was like one continuous noise. Dire possibilities flashed through her mind as she made her agonizing progress around the massive tree trunk. The sudden image of Astrasa mercilessly strangling Tsar, the leopardess sitting on his chest as she savagely squeezed the life from him, filled Eni's head, and her own heartbeat quickened. Eni told herself that it wasn't possible, but the image felt so horribly real that when she had at least crept far enough to see Tsar that for a moment she actually did see the Woemaker on top of him.
The leopardess wasn't there, though. Tsar was curled into a tight ball the way he had been every previous time Eni had seen him sleep, but there was nothing restful about it. His body looked tense, like a spring pressed down until it couldn't compress anymore, and his limbs were trembling. His bedding had been tossed aside, leaving him uncovered, and Eni could see his fingers digging deep trenches into the dirt as they clenched and unclenched in spasms.
His face was more frightening than any expression Eni had ever seen before; his mane stuck out wildly and a horrific snarl marred his features. His mouth seemed impossibly large, his fangs gleaming in the moonlight as though dying for something to bite. His eyes fluttered open as Eni approached, but they had rolled back into his skull so that only the whites were visible. Tsar's entire body shook with his breathing, but as Eni glanced back and forth, tightening her grip on her trident, she couldn't see anything but the wolf himself.
"Tsar?" Eni called again, a bit louder, "Are you… are you alright?"
It was perhaps the stupidest question that Eni had ever asked, because the answer was obviously no. Tsar whined as though someone had stabbed him, his head snapping back and thrashing to one side. "Tsar?" Eni said, hurrying over to him, "Tsar, wake up!"
He gave no indication of having heard her. He curled even more tightly upon himself, as though he was trying to avoid notice, and his tail suddenly lashed out. The tip went whistling past Eni's head before slamming into the trunk of the tree hard enough to make the massive oak creak and groan in protest, but Tsar still didn't wake. His tail pulled back, sending the last of his jumbled mess of bedroll and shed clothing flying, and Tsar rolled onto his back. He was making hoarse barking noises of what sounded like agony to Eni, tears rolling from his horribly blank eyes down his muzzle.
Eni swallowed hard, but she knew what she had to do even as she looked warily at his tail. It was thumping from side to side, forming divots in the ground with the force of its blows. Eni leaped forward, feeling his tail rush by over her head, and reached out with her paws. "Tsar!" she shouted, as loud as she could manage, straining to reach him, "Tsar!"
The tips of her fingers made contact with his head and then—
Eni didn't have the words to describe what happened. Her view of Tsar in the pale moonlight didn't ripple and break up like a reflection in a pond with a rock thrown at its center. The world inverted around her, and Eni felt deeply sick as all of reality turned on itself. For an instant, she could see both Tsar and the tree she had her back to, her vision widening and flattening like a ball of clay being worked on a potter's wheel, and then the silvery shades of night were replaced with vibrant colors.
The night was suddenly horribly alive with colors that could not be, vivid sparklers of a purple yellow making her cry out as her eyes and mind burned trying to make sense of them. Eni screamed, but there was no air in her lungs. And then she had no lungs; for an awful instant that lasted an eternity she was utterly without form, nothing more than a dazzling thread of thought. She was aware of what felt like all of creation and her own insignificance; the universe was a madcap orchestra and she was nothing more than a plucked string. Beats beyond measure pulsed and filled her being even without ears to hear them, as though everything alive was a song of its own and they were all clamoring for attention.
With a nauseating twist everything set itself back into order, but Eni wasn't under an old oak tree anymore. She staggered to her feet, trying to get her bearings; it was surprisingly dark. For a moment, Eni thought that her eyes needed to readjust after being dazzled by what she had seen, but then she looked up and had her breath taken away. The moon was nothing more than a slim waning crescent when it should have been nearly full, and the taste of fear filled Eni's mouth. She had lost time before to magic, but that had never been more than hours. If she had somehow lost weeks…
"Tsar?" she called out, hearing her voice tremble, "Are you there?"
No response came, and Eni looked about. In front of her was a modest little village that was definitely not Traumweld. Unlike the massive sunken pit of the village she and Tsar had left what felt like only hours before, what she saw looked far less unusual. The village was built into the side of a gently sloping hill, ringed by a tall wall of neatly laid brick. Perhaps forty or so quaint looking homes were clustered within the protective walls, lights still burning in a few of the windows despite the presumably late hour. Eni guessed that there couldn't be more than perhaps a hundred villagers, which should have made it just like any one of the hundreds of villages that dotted the Circle.
But Eni was struck with the nagging sense that she had seen the village before, and she looked to the main gate, hoping it had its name written on a sign. There wasn't one, although it was so dark she could barely make out the gate. Eni turned in a circle, a frown creasing her face. When she finished her turn, she saw a mountain in silhouette against the fathomless void of the starless sky, its snow-capped peak glittering faintly in the feeble moonlight.
The profile of Mount Gwared was unmistakable; the massive peak that stood at the center of the Circle was like no other mountain in all the Cradle, and it loomed so tall that Eni knew she had to be about twenty or so miles north of Vornstrom. She turned carefully, looking down at the horizon, and saw the Circle's capital barely visible off in the distance as an insignificant smudge of light.
Eni's frown deepened as she considered what that meant. Tsar must have recovered from whatever sort of fit he had been having; perhaps her touch had awoken him even as it sent her into the terrible visions she had seen. If he had carried her on his back again, that would explain how they had managed to cover at least eighty miles, although considering that the moon's position meant at least two weeks had passed he must not have been going very fast. It was a reasonable explanation, Eni reassured herself.
It just didn't make any sense.
North of Vornstrom was also north of Ghabarahata, and unless Tsar had discovered something there she had no idea why he would keep going. And even if he did, abandoning her on the outskirts of some tiny village rather than getting a place to stay and leaving her there struck her as very unusual. Unless, perhaps, there was something dangerous in the village? Eni didn't move for a moment, trying to convince herself that her logic was sound, but she couldn't.
She didn't feel as though she had been unconscious for weeks; she certainly didn't feel unusually weak, although something was strangely off. The night air seemed somehow more real than it ever had, so full of smells that it was almost overwhelming. Wildflowers and grasses and even the distant scents of the mammals in the village filled her nose, although the sounds were oddly muted. The chirp of crickets and the sigh of the wind were so faint she could barely make them out, and even her footsteps through the grass didn't seem to be making enough noise.
More than anything, what she saw looked unnaturally vibrant. The moon was so close to being gone entirely that she should have been almost completely blind, but the silvery glow that illuminated the world let her set off for the village without fear of stumbling over a hidden root or rock. As she got closer, the sense of familiarity only grew, although Eni still didn't recognize it. She tried running through her mental list of every village outside of Vornstrom she had ever visited, but the main gate was quite distinct, formed of thick planks and shaped like the top half of a massive hexagon. Iron bolts were driven through the door in a neat grid, weeping trails of rust faintly visible against the dark-painted wood.
The gate wasn't quite closed; there was a gap easily wide enough for Eni to slip through, but as she turned sideways to do so she froze. She cursed herself for not realizing it sooner; seeing the gate from the right angle had made the memory slip into place. She had been to the village before.
While the Cradle was littered with monuments to the Slayer's triumphs, Idrun was a nearly forgotten historical footnote. It was one of the very first places Eni had visited after graduating university and beginning her search for the Slayer in earnest. But when she had traveled to Idrun, there hadn't been cozy homes filled with sleeping mammals.
There had been nothing but rubble.
Where she stood, in the main gate, there shouldn't have been anything barring her path. The massive doors had long-ago decayed to nothing but skeletal and rusted iron frames, and they had fallen off their hinges years before Eni had even been born. All of the buildings in Idrun had collapsed, their thatched roofs rotted away and the bricks falling in as trees and weeds reclaimed the village. The outer wall stood like a gap-toothed smile, warped where it hadn't simply collapsed entirely, and Eni remembered vividly how it had seemed to leer at her.
Every instinct Eni had told her to turn back. Her stomach twisted into a knot as a terrible certainty overtook her; she was going to learn the answer to the mystery of what had happened to Idrun. When she had been a student, it had been a fascinating puzzle. The village was the site of one of the last monster attacks in the Scourge; perhaps the Veiderungr had been the very last. She had visited in hopes of finding clues of where the Slayer had gone after dispatching the beast that had slaughtered an entire village, but after nearly a hundred years there had been nothing new to find.
Eni was dimly aware that she was still walking forward, her legs feeling as weak and trembly as saplings, but she seemed unable to stop herself. Her breath came more rapidly, and although she desperately wanted to close her eyes, she couldn't. She had to see, she knew. Whatever it was that Tsar had fought, she needed to see it for herself.
Her footsteps seemed to glide above the grass as she drifted through the door and to the village common, where a fountain burbled gently near carefully landscaped flowers. Eni recognized the fountain, even though when she had last seen it the massive lower bowl had cracked in half and sunk almost a foot into the ground. It should have been a mossy lump of marble, filled with slimy and fetid water, but the polished marble glowed in the dim moonlight.
The water she saw filling it looked cool and fresh, rippling serenely as spouts shaped like fish poured into the basin. Eni timidly reached forward and touched it, and it felt as terribly real and unreal as everything else had, wetting her fur and dribbling off her fingers. She took a shaky breath and turned her head, searching for anything that seemed out of place, but there was nothing.
The nearest building was a combination village hall and village market, where villagers had met to make decisions and sell their crops. It was the largest structure in town, long and low with a façade of polished stone and a roof shingled with large blocks of slate. There was even a massive sundial positioned in front of the main door, burnished brass glittering dully. In her past, but the future of the moment she was stuck in, Eni had gone inside, searching for any files that might have been overlooked by previous generations. There had been nothing but mold and somnolent rodents creeping around the ruin, the decaying floorboards crumbling under her every footsteps, and Eni had left empty-pawed.
Now, though, what she saw was quietly prosperous, the sign of a well-to-do village that took great pride in itself. That same theme seemed to be reflected everywhere she turned; every house looked well-kept, surrounded by neat little gardens filled with rows of vegetables. It should have been a bucolic picture of life in the countryside, but the feeling of dread in Eni's chest only tightened as she slowly started crossing the village commons, sure that the next thing she saw would be terribly out of place.
It occurred to her suddenly that she should have closed the gate after herself, but when she turned around to face it her legs turned to jelly. Fear, unlike anything she had ever felt before, filled her gut. She spun back around so quickly that she stumbled to her knees, knowing instantly that she couldn't turn her back on whatever lurked beyond the end of the little park. There was something there, she realized. Eni couldn't articulate what it was, or even how she knew that it was there; she simply felt certainty down to her bones. She strained her ears to hear over the hammering of her heart, but what she detected first wasn't a sound. It was a smell, so acrid and coppery that she nearly gagged on it.
The air reeked with it, choking her and seeming to coat the inside of her throat. Blood from a middle-aged male goat who had died afraid, Eni knew, although she had no idea how she knew. The sour scent was somehow unmistakable, as obvious as if she had been asked the color of the ocean. Beyond the blood, though, was something even worse. It was musky and pungent and somehow wild, a smell so complex that Eni could perceive the notes that went into it. There was anger there. Rage, even. Whatever was stalking the village was full of boundless fury, mixed with a chilling sadistic pleasure at killing the goat.
For a moment, there was utter silence, Eni's breath catching in her throat as her arms and legs trembled. Her nose twitched as a gust of wind blew even more of the awful scent her way, bringing with it the faint tinkling of a bell.
And then Eni heard the screaming.
It was ear-piercing, drilling through her head like a bolt from a crossbow, and too high-pitched to come from the throat of anything but a child. There were no words in that keening wail, and as Eni turned her head to look at the distant house it had come from the air felt as thick as molasses, her every movement sluggish. Lights began to go on in other buildings as lanterns flared to life, and Eni wanted to shout.
She wanted to tell them to put their lamps away, to stay where it was safe instead of bursting out of their front doors to see what the commotion was. But she couldn't. Her voice was gone, her neck feeling squeezed even more tightly shut than Astrasa had managed, and nothing but a dry and dusty squeak came out. No one paid her any mind as the villagers emerged, lanterns raised as they rushed in the direction of the screaming.
Then it stopped.
It didn't stop all at once. That, at least, would have been a mercy. There was a terrible crunching noise that could have only been bones being crushed, and for an instant the screams somehow got louder and more terrible. Then there was an awful wet popping sound, and the screams gave way to gurgles. There was another crunch, followed by a mad and otherworldly laugh. Eni squeezed her paws over her ears but it did no good, the euphoric sound not even slightly diminished, and then it trailed off as the thing breathed deeply.
The villagers had frozen in their tracks, and Eni marveled at them even as she herself felt utterly immobilized. Perhaps seven or eight adults had rushed out of their homes dressed in nightclothes a century out of date, holding up similarly outdated lanterns and peering into the darkness. Their faces were masks of confusion and fear, and Eni felt helpless tears rolling down her face at their doomed courage.
Their bones had long since been gathered and burned, the ashes placed in a memorial that stood outside the walls of Idrun; Eni had seen for herself the signs of the monster that had killed them. There were claw marks unlike any described in The Codex Monstrum gouged into walls, the edges smoothed by decades of rain and snow but still quite visible. Bricks that had been thrown a dozen yards by the powerful blows of some unfathomable beast still protruded here and there from the ground, and the curving lines of the sundial were bent like wire from something unimaginably strong.
Eni knew if she kept watching she'd see it all for herself, but she couldn't restrain the urge to pray to the Mother for the Slayer to show up. She had to be watching one of Tsar's greatest failures, she knew. He must have arrived too late to do anything other than slay the monster after it had slaughtered every single villager, but she prayed nonetheless even as she watched the villagers hesitate.
In the end, it was a tall and muscular boar who plucked up his courage first. "That was from the Malterson house," he said, his voice shaky, "Come on, lads. You three with me. The rest of you, mind the bell."
He had the copper insignia of a militia mammal pinned to the cloak he wore over his nightgown, and he raised a spear in one hoof while he clutched a lantern in the other. The boar started walking toward the source of the noise, and after a moment the other villagers followed, raising their own simple weapons. Eni wanted to go after them. She wanted to shout a warning that they were doomed. She wanted to tell them she had seen the mausoleum they would all end up in, their names etched into the brass plate that marked their final resting spot.
But she couldn't.
She had become rooted in place and no words would come, her terror ratcheting up as she helplessly watched. Their lanterns threw off pools of light as the villagers followed their captain and even as Eni watched more lights went on in houses. Faces appeared at windows, watching the progress of the villagers brave enough to investigate themselves, and as they got further and further away from where Eni stood she braced herself.
Seconds, or perhaps minutes, dragged past, and then there was a sudden burst of movement. Horror filled Eni as she became certain that she was about to lay eyes on the monster, but it was only a trio of mammals, dressed in dark and hooded cloaks, running towards the militia. The one in the lead was a stocky deer; his hood had fallen back to reveal a face rigid with a sort of ecstatic terror. "He stirs! He stirs in his slumber!" he cried, his voice dreamily triumphant, "He will awaken!"
"Have mercy, my lord!" one of the others wailed, and Eni caught a glimpse of neatly curving lines scarring his face, "Forgive us!"
"Fear not; it is promised!" the deer shouted, "Rejoice!"
"It is promised!" the other two repeated, their voices on the fanatical edge of madness, and they kept running.
"Halt! I said halt!" the boar at the lead of the villagers shouted, uncertainly gripping his spear and turning to look at the robed mammals as they sprinted past, "Sir, wh—"
He never finished.
Something lunged from the shadows, something so black it was nearly a shadow itself. It moved so fast that Eni only got an impression of it as it bit off the boar's head and flung it aside. The monster ran on four powerful legs, its enormous and pointed head soaked in gore as it snarled triumphantly. The creature was leanly muscled and its every movement had a terrible fluid grace; it took another enormous bite, cracking the boar's ribs into splinters and tearing out his intestines, so quickly that the corpse hadn't even toppled yet.
The word came from everywhere and nowhere, burning into Eni's mind like a red-hot poker. The monster made a single bounding leap at the next member of the village militia before the unfortunate mammal could raise his crude sword; he didn't even have time to scream before the beast had ripped off both his arms and chewed through his stomach. The others turned and began running after the fleeing robed mammals, but even as Eni watched the trio simply vanished. It was as though they had winked out of existence entirely; they left no trace whatsoever.
Long lost voices, small with fear, begged to be spared and were ignored. The monster created horrible showers of blood as its wicked fangs ripped through flesh and its hide resisted every blow that managed to strike it. It took bites out of the murdered, not for food but for sport alone, and Eni could smell its terrible pleasure, its delight at murdering its victims like an intoxicating perfume.
The beast's long tail was like a serpent, thickly muscled and striking out with devastating force. Eni watched through tear-filled eyes as a young ewe was speared by that awful tail; it went completely through her and then flicked the sheep into a house hard enough to knock the wall down. Eni watched it all, unable to blot anything out. Everything seemed to be etching itself into her mind; she was sure she would never forget the reek of terror and the all-consuming smell of blood.
Some of the villagers had made it to the gate, but since Eni had passed through it the doors had somehow closed and wouldn't budge no matter how they threw themselves at it. Paws and hooves pounded at the thick wooden planks as shrill cries were given voice, pleading against the inevitable. Perhaps twenty or thirty mammals were clustered around the gate, and the monster stalked them with a mockingly languid pace, disappearing entirely where shadows pooled around it.
Eni held her breath as the beast paced past her, the only sound it made the bellows-like noise of its breathing as it paid her no mind. Whatever she was seeing felt far too real to be a nightmare, but the monster suddenly moved so fast that it was nothing more than a terrible blur.
Nothing could have prepared Eni for what she saw. The abomination seemed to delight in every slash of its terrible claws and bite of its enormous jaws. A goat, both of his legs reduced to nothing more than bloody stumps, tried to crawl away as he bleated in agony, and the beast made a chuffing noise like a mockery of laughter as it placed one paw against his back and pressed down until bones cracked. The goat shuddered and his screams trailed off, and for a moment there was silence.
The beast surveyed its handiwork, licking its chops in apparent pleasure as it looked for anyone else trying to get away. It turned suddenly to face Eni, and although its body was invisible beyond the light of the village square she was sure it was staring right at her. Eni's heart froze with dread as she felt its hidden eyes leering at her from the impenetrable darkness. Then she heard crying coming from behind her, followed by a peculiar icy feeling as something passed through her. A female goat who couldn't have been much older than Eni had stumbled through her, tripping and falling to the ground. Her eyes were wide with panic but her cheeks were dry; the crying had come from the bundle she clutched to her chest.
A kid who looked no more than a year old squalled and cried even as his mother tried calming him, her voice wavering as she made soothing sounds. Beneath her homespun dress Eni saw that the goat's left ankle was so badly twisted that it could only be broken, and when she tried pushing herself to her feet she simply cried out in pain and fell again. The goat landed on her back, rolling to avoid crushing her child, and she began crying out. "Please," she begged, but her eyes weren't looking through Eni at the monster behind her.
They were locked onto Eni's, filled with desperation. "Take him. Take him and run."
Eni swallowed hard and reached out, but the goat was just too far away to touch and her legs felt frozen. "Please," the goat begged, "Save him."
She was sobbing freely, and as Eni strained desperately to grab the kid whatever had locked her in place broke. She nearly stumbled over to the goat, but just as Eni was reaching down to try scooping up the infant the monster's breathing filled her ears.
It was a grotesque parody of a wolf, enormous and barrel-chested with a shaggy and sloping back. A thick protective mane, sticking out at crazed angles and stiff with blood, covered its neck and the back of its massive head, which was so full of teeth that it didn't seem to have room for anything else. Its long tail twitched idly back and forth, casually uprooting bushes as it struck the landscaping.
"Rejoice, for it is promised."
The words boomed like thunder, as though they had come from the sky itself, echoing like laughter and completely swallowing Eni's cry of pain.
The monster padded over, ignoring Eni and nudging at the goat's broken ankle with its nose. The goat screamed out, tightening her grip on her child, and as the infant squalled Eni turned to face the beast. She lashed out with her fist, trying desperately to punch the creature's head, and then its awful eyes met hers. She had just enough time to see their color before it lunged and—
Eni woke up screaming.
She curled involuntarily as her body shivered desperately, her limbs flashing both hot and cold. Her heart felt as though it was about to burst out of her chest, and no matter how fast she breathed there didn't seem to be enough air reaching her lungs. Hot, sticky tears burned her eyes and made her vision swim in oddly pinkish shades, and when she swiped a trembling paw across them her fingers came away tacky with blood.
Eni's ears were ringing, and she could feel blood oozing out of them, too, and dribbling from her nose. She retched, trying to will her panic to subside, but it wouldn't. Fear pulsed through her veins, because in that last final instant she had realized the awful truth of the memory she had seen.
"It was you," Eni said.
Her voice sounded as though she was on the edge of hysteria, but she was beyond caring. She wanted to cry and run and scream, but she didn't feel as though she could get off her back. Her entire body felt worn out and useless, squeezed of all its energy even as she desperately needed to move. "It was you," she said again, gasping the words between breaths as she managed with great effort to turn her head.
She was beneath the oak tree at Tsar's side, but he was no longer curled into a ball and thrashing around. He was sitting up, the white pattern on his chest practically glowing in the moonlight even as his black fur almost completely vanished. His head was downcast, his eyes not meeting hers. Eni struggled to get her breathing under control, feeling her heart gradually slow down, and after perhaps a minute the wolf spoke.
"Yes," he said.
The word was simple, but Eni could hear the shame in it. "What… what happened?" she asked.
She considered reaching out to touch him and then thought better of it. She wasn't sure if she could bear seeing the horrors he had inflicted once again, but Tsar didn't seem to notice. "I…" he began slowly, and he still didn't look her in the eye, "Did your mother tell you not to touch fires, or did you figure it out yourself?"
His voice was soft, so faint that Eni could barely hear the words. Her mouth opened but nothing came out, her answer dying on her tongue. Although Tsar's tone had been unreadable she was suddenly sure that he was about to snap at her for having touched him in his sleep.
But even as his head remained downcast, his features didn't twist in anger. Tsar nodded slowly, as though Eni had replied, and for a long moment he didn't speak. "I was... I prided myself on how I mastered my magic. I got careless."
Tsar swallowed. "It hadn't…" he said, and then he trailed off.
"I don't remember what I fought," he said at last, "But I used magic. I… burned with it. And then…"
Tsar trailed off again, and he ran a finger through the dirt at his side in an aimless circle. "Fire is anger for me," he said at last, "In that moment, I lost control. Couldn't contain it."
He stopped, and Eni was left to consider his awful words. She thought she understood him more than she ever had, and while the thought didn't make it any easier to comprehend his terrible crime she doubted anyone else alive but her could. "What about those mammals in the robes?" Eni asked at last, "They weren't villagers."
Tsar heaved a sigh, and for the first time since he had woken up he met her eyes. His own pale blue eyes were filled with something she had never seen reflected in them before, and when he answered his words were halting. "At the time, I thought they were cultists. Archons, perhaps. But now…" he said, and it seemed to take him great effort to finish, "I… may have imagined them."
He didn't explain any further, but he didn't need to. Eni knew exactly what he meant, and she could imagine his horror as he came to his senses and realized he had massacred an entire village of innocent mammals. Surely he would have been looking for any excuse to latch onto, anything that could assuage his terrible guilt. The idea of Archons having somehow manipulated him into losing control must have seemed appealing, but from the look on his face Eni knew he didn't believe it.
"That's why you stopped using magic and disappeared," Eni said, and Tsar nodded.
In that moment he certainly didn't look like the Slayer; he looked like a lost and broken kit. Guilt practically came off him in waves, and Eni doubted he saw anything he could do to pay for his monstrous crime. But he seemed to be trying, and Eni took a deep breath, trying to squash the thought of what she would do if she had come out of an awful rage surrounded by corpses. "Do you think it might be connected with Astrasa?" Eni asked.
"I'll know in Ghabarahata," he replied, and there was an air of finality to his words.
"We will," Eni said, and at last he looked up at her.
"We will," he echoed.
His expression was unreadable, but in his words she thought she had heard a small and somehow terrible kernel of fragile hope. "Goodnight, Tsar," she said.
She couldn't manage a smile; she had never felt less like smiling since learning of her parents' deaths. But something inside her knew he needed her as desperately as she needed him to teach her how to control the power inside of her, and that realization felt both beautiful and awful.
"Goodnight, Eni," he said.
For a moment, she thought he would say something else. Instead, he simply pulled his bedding back over himself and curled into a ball again, and Eni walked back to her own bedroll. She tried to settle herself under her blanket, but it took her several tries.
Her paws were trembling.