When Eni woke up, the sun was nothing more than a golden sliver on the horizon. She rolled onto her side and watched the light passing through low-hanging clouds, shading them from orange to purple, and then sighed.
She knew she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep.
That she had fallen asleep at all was remarkable enough; the events of the previous night felt seared into her mind. When she had closed her eyes the faces of Tsar's victims had been all she could imagine, the horror and pain unmistakable. Her sleep had somehow been utterly dreamless, and as she sat up she gave brief and silent thanks to the Mother for that mercy.
Tsar himself was still asleep, if his slow and even breathing was any indication, but Eni didn't walk around to the other side of the tree to check. She wasn't sure she could look at him; what could she possibly say? Seeing his memory had been bad enough, but she imagined the taste of flesh on her tongue and the feel of blood between her fingers and shuddered. She got to her feet to begin her morning routine, and then froze with one paw on her satchel.
She hadn't noticed the previous night, when there had been both more pressing things to consider and it had been darker, but their campsite had changed and she had a very good idea of when it had happened. About five yards out from the side of the oak where Tsar was slumbering was a circle of destruction that looked like the end result of a tornado. There was a perfect undamaged ring, centered around where she and Tsar must have been experiencing his dream together, and beyond that was ruin.
The grass had been ripped from the ground in great sheets of sod, peeled away from the earth like the skin of an apple. When Eni looked up, she saw that the mighty oak they had slept under had been trimmed like a topiary, the branches simply ending in the smooth curve where they had been clipped short by some unimaginable force. Beyond the tree, there were deep grooves in the ground where saplings had been ripped loose and blown away, and Eni saw a massive maple tree about fifty yards away that had been smashed into kindling by a rock the size of a wagon.
She padded around the oak, her mouth falling open as she took in the destruction, and walked over to the nearest standing tree. Its bark looked like the back of a porcupine; twigs and branches had been driven into it with such force that even when she grabbed a stick and pulled it didn't come loose. The tree itself was missing all of its leaves, and it was full of cracks oozing sap and swarming with insects where the titanic winds had broken it.
Eni stood there surveying at the damage as a sick sense of wonder filled the pit of her stomach. The dream had been Tsar's, but she was suddenly sure that the damage had been her fault. She was seeing the results of gale-strength winds, and she knew exactly which emotion her magic had inextricably linked to that force.
After a moment Eni managed to turn away and got busy preparing for another day of travel. Tsar didn't wake up even as the sun began rising higher in the sky and the pot of porridge she started cooking filled the air with the scents of fine oats and honeyed fruits, and as she waited Eni got out her journal. The words flowed out of her pen, filling page after page, and when Eni was finished recording the events of the previous night she frowned.
Reading her work back, it was horribly inadequate. Her dryly professional tone, although detailed as exquisitely as she had been able, simply didn't seem to match what she had seen. The art was worse, though. Her sketch of Tsar in his monstrous form looked too stylized, and while an air of terror baked off of him like heat from a stove it didn't even approximate how he had actually appeared. He simply looked like a crude effort at capturing the menace of a barghest, and Eni hated it. When future historians looked at her journal they wouldn't understand what she had seen, no matter how she tried to get it right, and Eni eventually set her notebook aside in frustration.
Even worse was that the memory, which had been so vivid the previous night, felt as though it was fading from her mind. The hard edges seemed to have been sanded away, and Eni wondered how sharp Tsar's own memory was. If what he recalled was only a diminished echo of what his experience had been, she thought she understood perfectly why he had abandoned the world.
And he had abandoned the world; any doubts about him being the Slayer were impossible to hold onto. Through him she had seen a window into the past that left her completely unable to cling to any reasonable suspicions of fraudulence. Eni tried telling herself that he might still be nothing more than a supremely powerful and ageless mage, but the idea refused to stick. He was the Slayer.
And a monster.
He had been perfectly honest about it. Right before getting on the road to Tormurghast, he had warned her that he had killed and eaten innocents, and now she had seen for herself the horrible truth of it. Eni's heart felt like a lump of rock in her chest as she wondered at his guilt. Her own burden was bad enough, and if in killing the slavers she had also hastened the antelope's death, at least she hadn't made the poor mammal suffer. Tsar had seemed to revel in the pain he caused, and Eni imagined herself giving in to the whispering voice of her magic. If the Slayer himself could give in, what chance did she have?
It was not a pleasant thought, and it was with trembling paws that Eni pulled the mostly completed outfit she was sewing together out of her satchel and began work on it. Her heart slowed and her fingers steadied as she worked at the stitching, trying to keep it as neat and precise as possible, and as she worked a bit of the fear seemed to leave her.
Eni's sewing got easier and easier as the sun kept climbing in the sky, and when the time was about eight bells she was surprised to find that she had finished. She held the garment up, looking at it as critically as she could, and nodded to herself, satisfied that it was as good as she could possibly make it. Eni folded it neatly and slid it into her satchel and returned to her journal, thoughtfully tapping the back of her pen against her front teeth as she read through her latest entry yet again.
She began another sketch, trying to capture the likeness of the cultist with the odd facial scars. He had been a wolf, his features even sharper than Tsar's and his fur a dark gray shot through with black where pinkish-white blemishes didn't show through. Whatever had happened to him, Eni was sure his markings hadn't been the result of an accident; there was a perfect symmetry to the swirling scars that struck her as quite deliberate. No matter how she racked her brain she couldn't think of a culture that practiced scarification to such an extent; she had heard of certain Elrim tribes that marked their faces with simple lines or dots, but never anything so elaborate.
"You missed the scars around his ears."
Eni jumped at the words; she hadn't even heard Tsar wake up, let alone walk around the tree to where she was sitting with her back to the trunk. He had noiselessly hunkered down next to her, peering over her shoulder at her journal. Eni fumbled the notebook and barely managed to keep a hold of it, but her glass pen slipped from her paw. Before it could hit the ground and shatter, Tsar's tail whipped out and neatly caught it, the very tip wrapped around the barrel of the pen. He presented it to her, carefully keeping it held until she reached out and grabbed it.
"Sorry," he said.
His interruption and his apology had both been quite neutral, the words devoid of any sort of emotion, but the casualness struck Eni as supremely forced. "Thank you," Eni said, and sketched in the missing scars, "How's that?"
Tsar looked down at the page, his eyes narrowing. "That's him," he said, his voice quiet, "The Archon."
He didn't say anything else, and Eni tried phrasing her question as delicately as possible. "Have you ever seen anyone else with a face scarred like this?" she asked, carefully tapping her drawing where the ink wasn't still wet, "Is it something Archons do, perhaps?"
"Never," Tsar said, "But …"
His eyes took on a faraway look, as though he was trying to remember something that he couldn't quite grasp. After a moment he shook his head and his face smoothed out. "Never found a trace," he said at last.
Eni nodded; she had hoped that Tsar knew something she didn't but she wasn't surprised. She could think of dozens of possible reasons why an Archon might have a face covered in symmetrically curving lines; perhaps the wolf had been a high-ranking member and the scars were a grisly mark of that. Perhaps he had been easily recognized and marred his appearance to become less so. Perhaps it had been some sort of barbaric punishment from his masters.
Whatever the answer she could only speculate, and the Archivist had always warned her how dangerous that was to do without data. She had to bite down a smile as she remembered the old markhor explaining, in his solemn tones, about a young and foolish student who had stumbled across what he had believed to be a collection of ceremonial vases used in a fertility ritual based on the etchings covering each vessel. The Archivist himself had been forced to explain to the hopeful antiquarian that the beautiful ceramic artifacts were, in fact, something quite different.
They had been chamber pots.
The lesson, the Archivist had explained to Eni's class once their laughter subsided, was how easily a series of deductions could go astray. For all Eni knew, the scarred wolf had simply been trying to make himself appear more intimidating, and at the thought the ghost of Eni's smile died completely. If that had been the goal, he had absolutely succeeded; between his scarring and the fanatical look in his eyes Eni knew he wasn't a mammal to take lightly.
She doubted Tsar would find the anecdote amusing, and even if he did she certainly didn't feel as though a joke was appropriate; the Aberrant wolf was watching her carefully with his strange pale eyes. "Need to get back on the road," he said, "We'll make it to Ghabarahata tonight."
Eni was already packed and ready to go, and Tsar didn't take very long to get his belongings in order. He gobbled down the remaining porridge Eni had made so quickly that it seemed to vanish and then cleaned the pot so fast that it was still warm from the fire when he gave it back. Moments later Tsar was heading back for the road, not even sparing a passing glance for the destroyed landscape.
As Eni caught up to him, though, she took one last look around, marveling at the damage. "Tsar?" she said, gazing up at his head until he turned and looked at her.
He didn't speak; his face was so utterly neutral that Eni felt as though she could read any emotion she wanted into it. She was sure that if she never said anything about what had happened the previous night, he wouldn't protest, but Eni knew she couldn't just avoid the topic forever. "I just want you to know…" she began, trying not to lose her nerve as his fathomless eyes bored into hers, "I'm not afraid of you."
He turned his head away, looking to the road ahead, and for several minutes he didn't speak. They walked in complete silence, the sounds of their footsteps making a counterpoint to the soft whisper of the wind and the chirps of insects. The road stretching out ahead of them was straight and bare, with no other travelers visible even as it vanished into the horizon. "It's just…" Eni continued, when she couldn't bear the quiet any longer, "If I'm afraid of you, I have to be afraid of myself. And I… I don't want that."
"My mother told me there were two ways that ul-Sai'ee tests mammals," Tsar said suddenly, "Do you know what they are?"
Eni shook her head; she thought Tsar was probably referring to the goddess Ul-Sayida, the cruelly whimsical being some Elrim claimed had created the world and now spent her days testing her creations for their worthiness to join the next one, but she had never come across much of their philosophy. "The first is denying you what you want," Tsar said quietly, and when he didn't immediately continue Eni prompted him.
"And the other?"
"Giving it to you," he said simply, and Eni found herself unable to get the words out of her head.
The idea that fear could be a good thing wasn't something she had ever really considered; all her life she had imagined what it would be like to live a boldly fearless life as the Slayer did. But Tsar had made it clear that he regretted his foolishness in believing his mastery of magic to be so solid that he hadn't feared what might happen. An entire village had paid for his arrogance with their lives, and Eni repressed a shudder.
She had no idea if what she had told Tsar had helped him at all; he continued walking with his face as placid as ever, his focus seemingly absorbed entirely by the still-distant speck of Ghabarahata. "Your mother was an Elrim, then?" Eni asked, hoping Tsar wouldn't take offense at the question.
"Yes," he said, and then he turned and looked her up and down, "Yours isn't."
Eni laughed, more out of amazement than humor. From how deadpan his words had been, and from how utterly bland his face remained, Eni supposed that it was possible that he was simply making an observation. But it almost seemed just as likely that he had actually tried telling a joke, although his face stayed unreadable even as he cocked his head to one side in apparent puzzlement. "She wasn't, no," Eni said, smiling, "My father wasn't either."
"Wasn't," Tsar echoed thoughtfully, and the smile slid off Eni's face.
"They… both passed," she said, "Years ago."
He gave her a sympathetic nod, but Eni couldn't keep her words in. "It was just their time, that's all," Eni said, "They were both old when I was born. I was a surprise, really. They didn't have any kits before me, and they didn't think they could. So I didn't have any brothers or sisters, but…"
Eni sighed, feeling a sudden and unexpectedly sharp pang of nostalgia hitting her. "It was like the entire village was a single family," she continued, and for a moment she could nearly taste the salty spray of the ocean and see the clean and flowing lines of Nihian architecture.
"Do you have any siblings?" Eni asked, and Tsar shook his head, his eyes never leaving her.
At any other time, Eni thought she would have been delighted to have an answer to one of the oldest questions about the Slayer that came up every time some huckster popped up and claimed to be related to or descended from the Slayer, but that felt entirely unimportant. "When I left for the university I… I always thought I'd be able to go back at least once. We wrote letters back and forth; my father always asked me when I'd go home. And I always tried to convince them to come to the Cradle and see it all for themselves."
Eni held up her paws and spun in a half circle, gesturing to take in everything around them. She didn't think she had ever seen a finer autumn day in the Circle; the air was cool and crisp, with just a hint of the coming cold of winter, and the sky above was almost impossibly blue. The clouds that drifted dreamily around the sun were puffy and white, stretching into gauzy streamers. "My mother passed away first," Eni said, and although the wound was an old one the thought still called tears to her eyes, "In her sleep. My father couldn't bear to tell me, though. He kept writing letters as though everything was fine until he passed away himself. The elder who… who wrote to tell me sent the poems my father composed. About his grief and how he was lost without her. About how he never got used to waking up alone."
Eni sniffed and chuckled weakly. "It sounds more poetic in Nihu," she said.
"Then say it in Nihu," Tsar said quietly.
Even with as careful as Eni had been with the letter, the cheap paper had still started falling apart from how often she had read it over and over again, and after she had put it away in her small apartment in Terregor she had never looked at it again. Eni didn't have to see it to remember it, though; she didn't even have to close her eyes to picture the beautifully formed calligraphic characters. She spoke the words, leaving them entirely untranslated, and when she had finished Tsar nodded.
He didn't say anything, and Eni didn't either. Their silence felt companionable, and the miles passed quickly as Ghabarahata grew larger and larger on the horizon. At about noon, Tsar spoke suddenly. "Reading," he said, "Lets you remember."
Eni turned and looked at him and nodded slowly. She had always more or less taken her ability to read and write for granted, but she realized he was correct. The letters she had from her parents, and even the letter she had received from the village elder, were precious treasures she never would have had if she had been as illiterate as Tsar. "That's true," she said, "A lot of antiquarians just want to find trinkets. You know, rings and cups and crowns of gold all studded with gems."
Tsar made a noise of understanding in the back of his throat, and Eni continued, "But I'd rather find books or tablets. There's nothing else that really tells you what mammals thought."
"Is that why you write?" Tsar asked, gesturing with his head at her satchel and the journal inside it.
"Partially," Eni admitted, "When I die, no one's going to be able to ask me any questions about the things I saw or did. There won't be anything left but what I write, and I want it to be… I want it to tell the story."
"What's the other reason?" Tsar said, looking at her again.
Eni offered him a smile. "My memory's not perfect, either. Writing helps keep me organized."
"Show me," Tsar said, stopping suddenly and smoothly sinking to the ground.
They spent half an hour eating lunch while Eni drilled him again on recognizing how the characters of Circi went together, scribbling them in the dirt off the side of the path. He was as attentive a student as ever, absorbing everything Eni said and hesitantly attempting to duplicate what she had written in increasingly steady symbols. When the last of the bag of dried fruit and nuts he had been eating was gone, Tsar glanced up at the position of the sun in the sky. "No time for your practice today," he said, and Eni found relief and disappointment warring in her gut.
After what she had seen the previous night, the idea of practicing how to control her magic was terrifying in a way that made her nose twitch as she considered it, but it had also reinforced just how desperately she needed practice. Tsar must have noticed her expression, because he added, "As soon as we can," his tone making it a promise.
Eni nodded reluctantly and got to her feet, brushing dust and the crumbs of her own lunch off her lap as she did. Ghabarahata was close enough that she was starting to be able to make out the details of the city and the massive wall that surrounded it. The Hills of Ghabahar were visible as smoothly flowing green lumps, completely covered with grass, and the gleaming black and gold roof of Wordermund's Tomb was just coming into sight.
The signs of his ancient empire were becoming more and more visible; not even twenty yards from where they had stopped was a mile marker so badly eroded and covered with moss that it almost looked like nothing more than a stone, and further down the road the somehow skeletal remains of an aqueduct were being slowly swallowed by the earth.
Eni found herself unable to ignore each and every indicator they passed as Ghabarahata loomed closer and closer; some of the villages they went by were said to date to the height of the long-gone empire itself, and here and there the ancient ruins of buildings poked out among far newer constructions. In some cases, they were hardly anything more than piles of ancient bricks, but in others the villagers had clearly done their best to maintain magnificent villas and temples.
It made her wish they had the time to stop; every time she had passed close to Ghabarahata she had always made an effort to see what those living in the countryside had found. It hadn't even been three years ago that she had purchased a magnificent blown glass goblet bearing the likeness of Wordermund himself from a farmer who had plowed it up in his field in the spring, and while she had never found such a treasure again it didn't hurt to look.
Tsar's pace showed no sign of wavering as he steadily kept walking along the road, and as the sun started going down Eni found it easier to focus on their destination ahead. The towns surrounding Ghabarahata didn't light themselves up to nearly the same extent that Traumweld did, and as the daylight faded they became nothing more than smudges of light. Only Ghabarahata burned brightly, the lamps set into its massive interlocking walls making the marble façade glow like the moon itself.
When they were close enough that Eni could just make out the figures of the guards standing watch on either side of the massive gate, Eni grabbed Tsar's arm. "Wait," she said, "We need to get dressed properly."
"It's ridiculous," Tsar said, disdain dripping from his voice, and Eni looked at him in surprise.
"I've never minded," she said, "I thought you'd like just being another face in the crowd."
He didn't answer, and Eni flashed a smile at him. "It's kind of nice, not standing out as the one Aberrant hare," she added.
Eni had told him the truth; Ghabarahata's custom of requiring everyone inside the city's walls, whether they lived there or not, to cover themselves completely from head to toe was one that didn't particularly bother her. Compared to the stares she sometimes got from mammals who had never seen anyone who looked anything like her before, the anonymity that hiding every last inch of her fur offered was almost welcome.
But as Eni reached into her satchel to pull out the rolls of linen she kept for covering her feet and her tail, she hesitated. The outfit she had made Tsar was still near the top of her bag, and she supposed there would hardly be a better time to offer it to him. "Here," she said, "I made something for you."
She pulled the garment out and held it up; with nothing but dim moonlight and the still faraway lamps in Ghabarahata to illuminate it, what she had made looked inky and black. The fabric she had found seemed almost to swallow all the light that fell on it, the reinforcing patches she had sewn into the joints just barely visible. The high collar was stiff enough to stay upright even without someone wearing it, and the buckles of the integrated belts didn't so much as jingle as Eni gave it a shake. "I thought you could use something—"
"I can't," Tsar interrupted, and for a moment Eni almost thought his eyes had widened.
It might have just been a trick of the light, though, because even as her disappointment swelled his own face was impassive. "Are you sure?" Eni asked, and he nodded.
"It'd be an insult to their memory," he said, more softly, and there was something in his voice that Eni couldn't recognize.
Eni didn't need to ask what he meant, but she didn't agree. "Don't you think you can be forgiven?" she asked.
"By who?" he replied, and Eni didn't have an answer.
His victims were all long dead, and she was the only one who knew about his crime. Could she really offer him absolution? As Eni looked down at the outfit, feeling the fabric between her fingers, she realized she didn't know. Not yet, at least; perhaps it was one of the questions they'd find an answer to in Ghabarahata. Without another word, Eni folded the garment back up and put it in her satchel, her heart feeling heavy as she did. By the time she had it packed away, Tsar was wrapping his tail in ragged strips of fabric, his feet already hidden in the same fashion.
Despite his head start, Eni still finished before he did; it didn't take very much time to press down the fluffy fur of her tail and hide the nub away with a single piece of linen. With her hood up, the last thing she needed was the lightweight mask she kept in her satchel just in case she passed through Ghabarahata; it lacked the ornamentation that many of the citizens of the city indulged in, but it did what it was supposed to do and didn't take up much room.
Tsar, however, apparently didn't bother to carry a mask; he had loosely wrapped his head with more of the fraying fabric strips he had used on his legs and tail, which had the end result of making him look like a mammal who had suffered terrible burns. Eni started walking toward the gate into Ghabarahata, but as she got in front of Tsar he suddenly called out. "Stop," he said, "Part of your tail is showing."
"It is?" Eni asked, craning her neck and trying to glance over her own shoulder, but no matter how she twisted her tail was too short and it was too dark to get a good look.
"Yes," Tsar said.
Eni frowned behind her mask as she quickly unwrapped her tail; the Ghabarahata City Guards didn't appreciate anyone flouting their rules, even accidentally, and she supposed Tsar might have saved them from a long and tedious conversation at the gate. She wrapped her tail back up, pulling tight on the linen, but Tsar shook his head. "Still showing," he said, and Eni heard what might have been impatience in his voice.
"Here, you wrap it then," Eni said, thrusting the fabric strip into Tsar's paws, "I can't turn my head far enough to see where it's not covered."
The wolf was even more unreadable than usual with every last inch of his body completely covered, but he worked quickly, his fingers feather-light as they grazed across her lower back. "There," he said, and abruptly started walking forward so quickly that Eni almost had to jog to catch up with him.
"Thanks," she said, "It must be easier with your tail."
She shot a glance at it; Tsar had coiled it up into a tightly wound circle, but he had done an excellent job of covering it completely. Tsar merely grunted in response, not looking at her as he kept up his pace. He didn't slow until the guards at the gate barred their path and called for them to halt, and as she did Eni got her first good look at them.
Eni knew what Ghabarahatan guards were supposed to look like; normally the City Guards wore fine silver armor with quilted blue fabric peeking through at the joints and covering any exposed bits of fur, topped with silver helmets that completely concealed their heads. Their helmets should have been smooth and polished, the clean lines broken only by the symbol of their rank enameled in black into the front and crossing the holes for their eyes.
The guards she saw, however, were wearing uniforms entirely of black, paired with matching hooded cloaks. Instead of their usual helmets they wore masks of carved ebony, their ranks worked across the foreheads with silver studs.
"Identification, please," the guard on the right called out.
Her voice had the sort of bland affect that Eni associated with Ghabarahata; the city's typical accent was completely unlike any of the other Sovereign Cities. It wasn't just the way the citizens spoke, either; the guard swept her left arm through the gesture that passed for a polite smile in a city where nobody showed their face in public. Eni had made sure she had her genuine paperwork and Tsar's forged document ready, and once again they passed muster. Rather than let them in, though, the guard on the left said, "I'm afraid we can't let you two in looking like that."
He inclined his head politely as he spoke, the lieutenant's insignia worked into his helmet catching the light. "Why not?" Tsar asked, his voice so blunt that it was nearly on the edge of rudeness.
"Today's the Day of Dwindling," the guard on the right said, "The usual dress code's not good enough."
"So soon after the Day of Description?" Eni blurted, and then was immediately glad her expression was hidden by her mask.
The male guard rolled his right arm in the Ghabarahatan gesture for a shrug. "We don't set the holidays, Miss Siverets," he said, clearly remembering her name from her citizenship paperwork, "You can get the right cloaks and masks for a twenty-obol deposit, refunded when you leave the city."
Eni frowned; the timing was extremely suspicious. She had never been through Ghabarahata on the Day of Dwindling, when they memorialized the assassination of Emperor Wordermund and the subsequent collapse of his empire, but she knew how it was celebrated. Rather than the wildly personalized masks and clothes that the city's citizens usually wore, everyone dressed alike in undecorated cloaks and masks. It did explain why the guards looked so plain but were still obviously members of the City Guard; clearly the rules were bent slightly on their behalf.
The holiday made it even harder than usual to tell anyone apart on the basis of anything but height and general build, and while the reason that it wasn't celebrated on a set date was officially to keep the city from becoming overrun with tourists, Eni was sure that the choice of the day this year had been influenced by the Archons. It was the perfect cover for whatever they were doing in Ghabarahata, and Eni felt her stomach clench as terrible possibilities filled her mind.
"Or if you don't have twenty obols, you can come back tomorrow morning," the female guard added, her voice still blandly polite.
"No, no, I'll put a deposit down," Eni said hastily, digging coins out of her purse, "It's not too late for the festivities, is it?"
"We celebrate all night," the male guard replied, sweeping his left arm through the same smiling gesture the female guard had used.
"Good," Eni said, "That's good."
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity if you don't live here year-round," the female guard said, collecting Eni's money and giving her a pair of neatly folded robes topped with two masks, "There are cubicles just inside the gatehouse where you can change. The guards posted there will let you in once you're set; please enjoy your stay in Ghabarahata."
"I just hope we didn't miss anything," Eni said, willing her voice to be cheerful, but she had meant the words for Tsar.
She shot him a glance as the guards let them past and to the designated changing area, and even without being able to see his face Eni knew what he was thinking. It was the same thing running through her mind: had the Archons in Ghabarahata already made their move?