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Chapter 33: Where the River Bends

To step into Ghabarahata was to step thousands of years back in time, and Eni loved it. Ghabarahata had been many things in the course of its long history, but more than anything it was the birthplace of Wordermund's Empire. From the moment he had conquered it with nothing more than a word, the city had carried the Emperor's legacy in every brick. His death and the passage of centuries hadn't changed that, and to walk down Miltarem Street was to see a city frozen in time.

The architecture was stubbornly old-fashioned in the Imperial style, all grandly vaulted domes and fluted columns made from smoothly polished marble. Graceful fountains stood at the center of every public square, surrounded by mosaics of elaborately worked tile, and there were smooth depressions worn into all the steps where countless generations had trod. Eni had never been in any other city with such a sense of history, where everything old was not half-hidden or built over but proudly on display. In Ghabarahata, a restaurant that had stood in the same spot and been run by the same family for three hundred years was still considered new, and it seemed as though every single citizen could trace their own lineage back at least a thousand years.

But as Eni followed Tsar past the second set of guards and along the city's grand central avenue, none of those citizens were out and about. From every previous time Eni had visited, she knew that the open-air markets never shut down. There should have been throngs of mammals milling about as merchants boasted about their wares and implored passersby to look more closely.

There was no one.

Although the lamps lining Miltarem Street blazed brilliantly against the darkness, they didn't illuminate a single soul. The vast avenue was much too wide with only her and Tsar to take it up, and Eni glanced around uneasily, trying to find any sign of life. At her side, Tsar cocked his head this way and that, as though he was doing the same, but his face was completely invisible behind his impassive mask.

Just as Eni opened her mouth to speak, the singing began. It was low and mournful, drifting through the air like a cold breeze. Eni could feel it in her chest and through her feet as nearly a hundred thousand voices were lifted in unison, giving the words a powerful echo.

Beyond the march, the legion's arch

Before the column of obsidian and gold.

Beneath your claws his reign's first breath

And where immortals must meet death.

Within these walls and cobblestones

A feast for mourning and the blessed.

Sere your tears child, and heed where you tread

Here in these halls the old lion rests.

Ghabarahata wasn't home to the largest church of the Order of Basileus, but its mighty cathedrals must have been completely full. The citizens of Ghabarahata continued reciting Wordermund's Requiem, all huddled together in their temples, but Tsar was silent and still. "Astrasa came this way," he said after a moment, pointing down the grand avenue that Eni knew led to Ghabarahata's wealthiest neighborhoods, "Can smell her."

His words were nearly drowned out by the ongoing memorial to the city's long-dead master, and Eni knew why he had halted. The direction he was indicating was in almost exactly the opposite direction of Wordermund's Mausoleum, and they could only be in one place at a time. Eni's mouth felt suddenly dry, and she was glad for her smooth and inscrutable mask. "We ought to go after her first," Eni said, hesitating only slightly, "We'll never get near the tomb, not while the ceremony's going on."

Tsar nodded, the gesture difficult to read with his head shrouded by his mask and his body completely covered by his robe. "If you're sure," he said, setting off at once on the trail of Astrasa's scent, and there was something peculiar to his tone.

He might have been impressed by Eni's resolve, or perhaps he was just eager to face the leopardess again. But whatever the case, Eni realized that her decision had made up his mind, and as she followed Tsar through Ghabarahata she hoped that she had chosen correctly.

The streets they passed through remained empty, and Tsar's sense of direction didn't falter for so much as an instant. He made turns without any kind of hesitation, apparently perfectly able to follow the Woemaker's scent, and it was all Eni could do to keep up. She couldn't smell anything herself; all she really noticed was the rich woody fragrance of her mask close to her nose, with whatever the city itself smelled like completely blotted out.

As they ran through the empty streets, the words of the requiem seemed to crash around them, and when they passed close to a cathedral Eni felt as though she would be deafened by just how loud it was. She caught a muddled glimpse of hundreds of mammals through the building's stained-glass windows, illuminated from behind by dozens of blazing lanterns, and kept running.

Tsar didn't seem to have eyes for any of Ghabarahata's wonders. He ignored everything they passed by, not sparing a glance for the beautifully enameled breastplate on display in the window of an armorer's shop or for the dozens of weighty tomes being shown off by a bookseller. All the stores they passed were empty and quiet, their owners and patrons alike consumed by their act of remembrance, and before long they had arrived in a neighborhood that made Rongen's tower look quaintly shabby.

All of the estates looked practically the size of castles, each one a beautiful example of classical architecture. Most of them, Eni knew, had served as residences to Wordermund's generals and top aides when they joined him for a retreat from the capital, and every single one was suitably grand. All of the gates bore mottos in Classical Word, weathered by time but still proudly gilded, and Tsar stopped at last in front of one that read, "Corruptio Optimi Pessima."

The grand building behind the gate was too poorly lit to clearly make out, but Eni didn't need to see it because from the motto alone she knew exactly who its first resident had been. In the time of Basileus the Fourth, General Carthenus had served at Emperor Wordermund's right side as his greatest supporter and confidante through countless campaigns before suddenly attempting to betray him for reasons lost to history. Perhaps Carthenus had given into his own selfish desires, his greed at last overcoming years of loyal service, but after his execution his estate had been given over to his successor with a new motto chosen by Wordermund himself. "The best, corrupted, is the worst," had always struck Eni as a particularly tragic slogan, one that she supposed showed that Wordermund had felt his friend's betrayal more bitterly than the hate of an enemy.

Tsar didn't even look at the words; he simply grabbed the gate where it came together and pulled until the lock gave way. Eni hurried onto the grounds after him, looking around nervously at the elegantly manicured bushes and trees. "There should be guards," Eni whispered, trying to keep her voice low even though the distant singing of the city's citizens was still perfectly audible.

The wolf nodded distractedly, but from how his head moved back and forth Eni was sure he was listening intently for anyone even as he remained fixated on the Woemaker's scent. When they arrived at the estate's main doors, which were each at least eight feet wide and nearly twice as tall, Tsar paused, pressing his head against it for a moment. The only part of his face Eni could see through his mask was his eyes, which he had closed in concentration. Five seconds crawled past, Eni's heart beating in her throat all the while, before Tsar suddenly acted.

Moving so swiftly he was just a blur, Tsar drew his whip-sword and swept it upward, the blade passing through the narrow gap where the doors met. He slammed his shoulder into one door an instant later, and it simply opened, creaking on its hinges as it swung inward. Tsar rushed in and Eni stumbled after him, sure that someone would have heard the commotion, but the foyer was completely empty.

Tsar pulled off his mask and Eni did the same, grateful for how much fresher the air seemed when it wasn't coming through small slits. As he tucked his mask away Tsar walked noiselessly across the tiled floor, ignoring all of the finery as he set off. Eni did her best to move as silently as he did, but her footsteps sounded horribly loud to her ears no matter how carefully she tried.

The cavernous room had quite an echo to it, the grandly vaulted ceiling amplifying everything and making the enormous but unlit crystal chandelier sway ever so slightly back and forth. There was a massive sweeping staircase, lined with carpet so richly tufted that it looked nearly a foot thick, that led to the second floor, but Tsar didn't take so much as a step toward it. Instead, he went off in the direction of the left wing of the building, passing door after door without comment before stopping to pull one open.

Eni followed him in, stopping only long enough to light her lantern against the room's oppressive darkness, and nearly jumped as a pair of enormous eyes looked back at her. The wall opposite the door was dominated by a portrait of Princess Almara so large that its subject must have been twice life sized. The she-wolf was reclined on a luxurious settee, her legs crossed and one graceful arm raised and beckoning. A small but somehow coy smile lit up her lovely face, her eyes as bright as jewels. A diaphanous gown accentuated the elegant curves of her hips and her bust, doing almost nothing to conceal her. Her pale fur positively glowed in the painted light of a setting sun, as though Eni was not looking at a work of art at all but somehow peering through an impossibly clear window into the past.

She didn't recognize the style of the artist who had done the portrait, but from the tiny cracks in the paint that were visible when she looked closely Eni thought it must have been old enough to make it possible for Almara to have actually posed for it. "Not what she looked like," Tsar said, having clearly seen what Eni was looking at, "Bad portrait."

He had barely glanced at the painting before moving on, but Eni turned toward him in surprise. From how dismissive his tone had been, it certainly sounded as though he thought the version of Almara captured on the canvas wasn't good enough, but as she looked in his direction her words died on her tongue.

On the wall Tsar was facing was another painting, and although its artist had been no less skillful it sent icy chills down Eni's spine. It showed a vast and grassy plain bordered by a forest, from such a high perspective that it was as though the painter had been an avian, but the scene was anything but idyllic. The very ground was being torn asunder, chunks of earth the size of castles crumbling into the yawning chasm that had formed. Although there was neither a sun nor a moon in the sky to illuminate the scene, it was still lit by a terrible red-orange glow that emanated from the depths of the void.

And something was climbing out.

Eni could barely tell what it was; its skin seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it, but from where the figure was thrown into relief against the light below she saw monstrous spines and unnatural protrusions. The creature was vast beyond any earthly measure, its massive talons each longer than pine trees and far thicker. The monster's eyes glowed with an awful light, forming twin spots of hideous shifting color against its form, and Eni knew what it had to be. Deiken was everything the Mother was not, a force of destruction and rapacious hunger that could never be sated.

The souls of the wicked seemed somehow trapped in Deiken's remorseless eyes, crying out for an end to their torment even as their suffering fueled his terrible will. Eni had seen Deiken in religious art before, but never in such awful detail and never without his counterbalance. There should have been a representation of the Mother, whether it was the Veiled Lady or the Three Aspects, to face her opposite, but there was nothing.

Whoever had painted Deiken had chosen to show him unopposed, waking from his long slumber with no one to stand against him. Eni could feel all her fur standing on end; she had the same sense of peering through a window she had felt when she had looked at the portrait of Almara. She looked desperately at the frame, trying to reassure herself that it was nothing more than paint on canvas, and felt her heart pounding in her chest. "What's it say?" Tsar asked, gesturing with the tip of his tail at a small brass plaque Eni had overlooked just below the painting.

"All That is Due," Eni said, reading what could only be the title, "It's from the Second Canticle of Sira. 'Sin is anted in horror, and in the Mother's love we are debtless. But the ingrates shall bear her beyond her bridle, and bring upon the world all that is due.'"

Eni paused, feeling a chill flowing through her veins like ice water. Tsar simply grunted and turned away, examining the next wall. "I… I don't suppose you know if that one is accurate, do you?" Eni asked.

It was a weak joke, made weaker by how feeble her own voice sounded to her ears. But the painting of Deiken was unsettling in a way that went beyond what Eni could see; the awful god had shaken her to her core. "Never met," Tsar said, his tone completely businesslike as he took her at her word, "Wouldn't know."

Eni laughed nervously, and Tsar paused in his examination of an unremarkable wall. "You're feeling it," he said quietly, turning and looking at her.

His pale eyes seemed to bore into her own. "There's been magic here," he said, "I feel it. And so do you."

All Eni felt was dread. It was as though there was a lead weight sinking through her stomach, and the air seemed to have an oppressively heavy quality to it as though it was getting thicker and thicker. "It feels awful," she said, and Tsar nodded absently.

He had placed one paw up against the wall, tracing the very tips of his claws up against it so lightly that Eni could only just hear a slight scraping sound. Both his ears had swiveled toward the solid stone, and he brought his nose close, his nostrils flaring in and out. At the very same instant that Eni heard the minutest of changes in the quality of the noise his claws made, Tsar stopped, freezing in place. In a single fluid motion, his fingers curled into a fist and he punched the wall so hard that dust drifted down from the ceiling.

Eni winced at the sharp crack; it seemed inevitable that he must have broken every single bone in his arm. When he spread his fingers wide and placed them against the divot he had made, though, his knuckles were barely even scraped, a few tiny dots of brilliantly red blood standing out against the dark fur. Tsar regarded his handiwork with apparent satisfaction; he had made a crater in the wall nearly four inches deep, radiating a spider web of cracks that ran all the way to the floor and nearly reached the corner of the room.

The wolf's face set itself into a grimace of concentration as he struck out again, his fist hitting exactly where his first blow had gone. There was another shower of dust and a hollow crumbling sound as his arm vanished nearly up to his elbow in the wall, and Tsar dug in his feet and pulled so ferociously that Eni could hear mortar first straining and then giving way.

A cloud of debris billowed into the air and stung Eni's eyes, filling them with tears, and when she had blinked them clear she saw that a roughly rectangular section of the wall was simply gone. Tsar had wrenched the hidden door away with such force that part of the wall had peeled away with it, revealing thick iron reinforcing rods that had bent and snapped. The exposed doorway was unusually wide, leading into an unlit corridor long enough for the other end to simply vanish into the gloom.

Tsar's head suddenly tilted back sharply, and Eni's grip on her trident tightened as she expected someone to burst forth and attack. Instead, Tsar sneezed, the sound almost like a bark, and then sneezed again. "Mother nurse you," Eni said, the words automatic, but Tsar didn't acknowledge them.

"No one there," he said in a low voice, "Not that I can smell."

He looked at her, his eyes first meeting hers before flicking up over the top of her head. Eni realized what he was wordlessly implying and pulled off her hood, allowing her ears to spring free and willing them upright. She could hear the dust still swirling in the air, the sound of it like the dull roar of a distant rainstorm, and Tsar's heart beating slowly and steadily in his chest. Besides her own pulse, there was nothing but the far-off singing, no matter how Eni strained, and she shook her head. "No one," she said, and Tsar began creeping forward, one paw under his cloak and resting casually against the hilt of his whip-sword.

Eni followed him into the darkness, holding her lantern high and wishing that it was brighter. Compared to the opulence of the room they were leaving, the corridor was extraordinarily plain; it was composed entirely of rough-hewn bricks with nothing in the way of decoration. The floor sloped down beneath their feet, and Eni placed a paw against the crumbly brick wall to avoid slipping. Just ahead of her, Tsar had no apparent difficulty keeping his balance; his tail kept moving minutely from side to side and he never left the middle of what was rapidly becoming a tunnel under the ground.

The passage couldn't have been more than perhaps a hundred yards long, but it felt far longer as it kept descending ever further. The image of Deiken bursting from the earth flashed through Eni's mind, and although she shook her head to clear it the awful sense of heaviness to the air only grew stronger. The tunnel turned this way and that, and the further they went the narrower it got. Eni first had to walk directly behind Tsar, but the walls still closed in. Her hips began brushing against the rocks, the long cloak she was wearing catching and snagging in places, but at last they were at the end.

Peering over Tsar's shoulder, and lifting her lantern for illumination, Eni saw a door that wouldn't have looked out of place leading into a tavern. It was quite ordinary, with thick wooden planks stoutly bound by iron, and a large and heavy lock kept it shut. No light emerged through the keyhole or from the narrow gap under the bottom of the door, and when Eni listened carefully she didn't hear anything.

At least, nothing normal.

She didn't hear the beating of hearts or the puffs of mammals breathing. There were no creaks coming from chairs being sat upon or tables being leaned against, no whisper of fabric against fur from clothing. But there was something.

It wasn't like anything Eni had ever heard before, because it barely seemed to be a sound. It wasn't like the furious drone of a hornet's nest or the crack and hiss of flesh burning in a fire. Somehow both came to mind and Eni's sense of dread deepened. She could feel it, lurking just out of reach, and she swallowed hard. Eni could only see the back of Tsar's head, but his hackles were raised, his mane sticking out in all directions as he grabbed the doorknob and twisted.

There was a horrible squeal as metal twisted and then snapped, and he threw the door open even as he drew his whip-sword and made it blaze to life. The wolf rushed into the room and Eni followed, sure that there would be someone there.

There wasn't.

The room they had burst into was wide and low-ceilinged, carved from raw stone. The smell of printer's ink hung in the air, and shoved in one corner of the room was a massive press, steel gleaming dully from behind stacks of neatly bound paper. Dozens of desks filled the rest of the room, each with a cipher engine and a typewriter atop it, and Eni's eyes widened. There had to be at least twenty-four of each, representing an absolute fortune. Whoever had set up the hidden room must have had extraordinarily deep pockets; Eni had never seen so many typewriters in a single place.

Tsar put out the flames of his whip-sword, although Eni wished he hadn't. With only the light of her lantern, the shadows seemed to creep menacingly around them, and she walked among the rows of desks and toward the printing press. There was a small wooden crate at one end of it, filled with books so newly made that their spines cracked softly as Eni opened one.

Nonsense symbols met her eyes; she didn't even have to flip to the title page to know that it was a copy of The Lamentations of Nergora. She held onto the strange book and looked around, frowning. The room obviously served as some sort of base of operations, although she couldn't guess what they had been doing. All of the cipher engines had been dutifully zeroed out, without so much as a single character set for the decryption wheels, and none of the typewriters had any paper in them. There were no scraps on the desks or the floors; the room was utterly bare of any character.

Except for the wall opposite the door, which as Eni got closer to saw had a black banner hanging from it. The fabric had almost vanished into the darkness, but as she brought her lantern nearer Eni saw that there was a peculiar shape stitched into it using silver thread. It almost looked like the triskelion of the Devout of the Three Aspects, but there was a sense of strangeness to the glyph that Eni didn't care for. Its complex curves and jagged edges seemed to hold a menacing promise, like a whispered threat before a fight.

"I think…" Eni began slowly, "I think this symbol is in The Lamentations."

She rifled through the book she still held, flipping through page after page of densely packed and inscrutable symbols before at last stopping. "Here!" Eni said triumphantly, looking from the page to the banner; there was no mistaking that both were utterly identical.

"Have you ever seen this symbol before, Tsar?" Eni asked, gesturing with her lantern without taking her eyes off the banner.

He didn't immediately answer and Eni kept studying it, her frown deepening as she delicately reached out and touched the fabric. It was made out of black velvet, and despite how soft to the touch it was it made her fingers prickle as though she was holding them too close to a fire. "Can you feel that too?" she asked, repressing a shudder, "It's… wrong."

The banner had seen violence. She didn't know how she knew that, but it felt utterly indisputable. Eni turned to Tsar, and what she saw nearly made her drop her lantern. The wolf was frozen in place, his head fixed toward the banner, but his face had twisted into such an awful grimace that she had at first thought he had taken on the monstrous form from his memory. Eni saw anger beyond what seemed possible for a mammal to feel etched into every hard line of his face, and his eyes all but glowed with a hateful light. His teeth looked as large as knives, Tsar seeming to fill the room in a way that had nothing to do with his physical size. There was a presence to him, something radiating off him that washed out Eni's sense of unnamable dread and replaced it with something far more primal.

Tsar was the very embodiment of fury, and Eni gasped at the strength of his emotion as it battered at her. She could feel the power inside her starting to respond to it, stirring at the touch, and she pulled down hard. "No!" she cried, and she threw herself between the wolf and the banner, "Tsar, stop!"

His head didn't move; he might as well have been completely unable to see her. His lips peeled back impossibly further and his fingers spasmed at his side, clenching into fists. A low and guttural sound escaped his throat, so low-pitched that Eni felt it more than heard it, and his eyes began to roll back into his skull. "Stop!" Eni cried, and without thinking she reached out for him with both arms, dropping her lantern as—

The room danced and spun around Eni, the darkness growing closer and closer until it covered her like a cold and heavy blanket. All the warmth seemed to have been leached from her body, and she shivered desperately as a musical ringing filled her ears. It was like the tinkling of a small bell, but the delicate noise got louder and louder until her entire body shook with it. Eni screamed and she couldn't hear herself, the sound instantly torn away by the awful chiming. There was a force to it that struck her like bricks being dropped from a tower, and her body throbbed with the terrible pulsing like a giant's heartbeat. Eni's eyes suddenly swam with colors and shapes that refused to resolve into anything meaningful, dazzling her as the awful pounding filled her ears and grew so loud that it was all she could perceive.

And then the world made sense again.

Cold fear gripped at her heart as she realized exactly where she was. The nearly devoured sliver of the moon drifted above her and burning light seeped through the crack in the hexagonal gate ahead. She was outside Idrun again, on the very same night she had already seen. "No," Eni whispered in a voice that did not carry as she looked around, "Please, wake up."

She was exactly where she had appeared before, standing before the gate to the sleepy village that filled her eyes and ears. Eni desperately wanted nothing more than to turn back, to not see again the terrors she had already seen, but she drifted inexorably forward. She was as helpless to resist the pull of what lurked in the village as an iron filing was to deny the attraction of a magnet, and even though her legs did not move the open gate got closer and closer until she was beyond it. Her pace mercilessly increased, and even when she was moving faster than she could have ever run she still accelerated as Tsar drew her to the scene of his awful crime. Terribly familiar buildings flew past, too quickly to get more than a glimpse of, but they felt seared into her mind. There were no bodies on the ground or screams filling the air, but she knew it was only a matter of time before it all began.

The force drawing her onward was relentless, pulling her toward the far end of the village where the gently sloping land started rising. A building she had never seen before filled her sight; it was a house she had once seen as a ruined foundation, stones charred where the rest had burned away. It could only be the Malterson house, where Tsar's loss of control had started, and the ground began blurring under Eni's feet as she kept accelerating. She tried willing herself to stop. She tried digging her toes in to halt her progress. She tried everything she could think of, but nothing happened.

Eni felt the world hurling past her, the house's front door growing larger and larger. It was coming so fast she was sure she would splinter it into pieces and break every bone in her body, and she cried out as she futilely stretched out her arms in a last-ditch effort to make it stop. Instead of the expected resistance, Eni simply passed through the door as though she herself was specter, and she had only a moment to marvel at the sensation. Then came a crushing stop, so sudden that it felt as though an enormous hook had reached through her stomach and pulled her the other way. For an instant she felt overwhelmed by sickness, her head swimming as she struggled to absorb her surroundings.

The Malterson house was charmingly old-fashioned, exactly like the rest of the village; all of the furnishings were a century out of date as Eni had expected them to be. There was a modest table and set of chairs in the dining room, all of them covered with lace doilies, and a half-finished set of carved wooden Knavery pieces in a small hutch. Off to the side was a simple kitchen with a squat brick stove neatly filled with fresh firewood. Burnished copper pots hung from the ceiling, and splitting the dining room from the kitchen was a narrow staircase to the house's second floor, the steps thoroughly swept. Everything Eni could see looked well cared for; there wasn't so much as a speck of dust or a single cobweb anywhere, and although there wasn't a single lamp burning she didn't have a problem seeing.

The house struck her as impossibly vivid and undeniably real. She could smell potatoes and flour in the pantry, and there was a faint whiff of vinegar from when the windows had last been cleaned. Coming down from the second floor, Eni could smell three goats, a male and female of middle-age and a kid of no more than five or six. She had no idea how her nose could tell that, but she was sure she was right. Worse, however, was that she recognized the scents.

The male goat was the one who was going to die first, she knew. It had been his blood that had filled the air the first time she had seen Tsar's memory, and Eni glanced up the staircase. Was the wolf already there, stalking his prey? Eni didn't think he was, and she involuntarily turned toward the door. Her heart seemed to freeze in her chest as she looked back; there was something etched into the wood.

It was the same symbol from the hidden room in Ghabarahata.

Eni's eyes widened as she looked at the mark; it seemed quite fresh, little bits of debris still clinging into the gouges, and when she looked from the carving to the doorknob she saw that the lock was ruined. The metal was simply sheared, as though it had been cut by an impossibly hot knife, and not even the latch was intact. If it hadn't been for how perfectly the door fit into its frame, Eni was sure that it would have been clattering open and closed in the night's breeze, and a frown crossed her face.

She took an experimental sniff of the air, feeling foolish as she did so, but what met her nose was an incredible wealth of information she never would have thought possible. There, beneath the day-to-day scents of the Malterson family, was something alien and strangely sour. Fresh, but not incredibly so, and the mammal who had left that trace hadn't been a goat. He hadn't even been a prey mammal.

He had been a wolf.

Eni dimly felt the pieces coming together in her mind. The scarred Archon had broken into the house and carved a symbol into the back of their front door, and then he had left. The wolf and his compatriots must have been waiting nearby for Tsar to show up, but they obviously hadn't gotten the result they wanted. Eni felt as though she was just short of grasping why, but before Eni could think on it more the door suddenly swept open and Tsar staggered in.

He was wearing a plain black cloak, much like the gray one Eni always saw him wearing, but it wasn't threadbare. Far from it; the material was whole and undamaged, the hem neat and free of tatters. It was hard to tell what he was wearing under it, though, because he was splattered head to toe with foul-smelling ichor. It looked almost like blood, but it was too black and tarry to have come from a mammal; Eni realized he must have just slayed a monster. "Tsar," Eni called out, the name escaping her lips before she could think about it, but he didn't notice.

He was unsteady on his feet, but he didn't look injured; there was none of his own blood among what coated him. Still, he didn't look well. His breath was coming rapidly, his chest heaving with exertion, and his pupils had constricted to pinpricks. Tsar fell to the wooden floor, dropping his whip-sword as he did, and Eni saw it wasn't the one Rongen had made him. The metal had an odd rippling pattern to it, shimmering like it was made of oil rather than steel, but the wolf made no attempt to pick it up. Tsar supported himself on all fours, straining to raise his head, and he began to murmur something in a strangely fluid and musical language Eni didn't understand. There was one word that he kept repeating, and as he said "Ul-Sai'ee," again and again Eni realized what he was doing.

He was praying to his mother's goddess.

There was a desperation to his words that Eni recognized even without knowing what he was saying, and she knew exactly what he wanted. He was begging for control as Eni had herself many times, and she felt a rush of understanding no one without magic would ever know.

She could feel the power inside him straining to be released, burning out of him like a tree struck by lightning and being consumed from its center. The air took on a weighty and dreadful quality, seeming to become warmer, and the stove in the kitchen suddenly flared to life. Tsar turned away and crawled back for the door, which had swung shut after him. Eni crossed the floor to where he was sprawled prone, his voice thickening and becoming rougher as his words became more halting. "Tsar," she called again, but he didn't react at all.

Eni bent down and seized by the shoulders, half-expecting her arms to simply pass through him as her entire body had passed through the door, but he felt solid as she managed to lift his head and look into his eyes. "It's just a memory," she said, "Come on."

Tsar's eyes seemed to stare past her to the carved symbol as he kept up his litany in a faltering tone, and then he suddenly locked his gaze onto hers. He stopped speaking and—

—the lantern hit the floor and shattered, glass and wire coming apart into a mess that flared brightly for an instant and then settled into a dimly burning puddle of fuel. Eni nearly retched, her head spinning as she suddenly found herself back in the present. Her arms were wrapped around Tsar's body in a sort of aggressively close embrace, her chest squeezed against his so tightly that her own breath came shallowly. "Sorry," Eni said hastily, letting go and stumbling back a step.

Her balance was horribly off, the room feeling as though it was wobbling like a ship at sea, but before she could fall over Tsar's tail reached out and braced itself against the small of Eni's back. "It's fine," Tsar said quietly, "I… I didn't remember."

All of the color seemed to have drained out of the insides of his ears, and his voice was much hoarser than it usually was. "Until I saw that," he said, stabbing at the black banner with one finger.

He didn't look at it again, though, and Eni couldn't blame him. "I went into that house," he said softly and slowly, "I remember now. The goat was… He was a village elder. I…"

Tsar frowned, his brow furrowing. "I don't remember why," he said at last, "But I… spoke to him before I fought. About…"

He scowled suddenly, but there was only frustration in the expression. "I can't remember," he said.

Eni reached forward and tentatively touched his arm. He didn't pull back, but he didn't seem to notice, either, his eyes unfocused as he strained for a memory that he couldn't reach. "It'll come," Eni said, trying to sound confident, "You'll see."

Tsar didn't answer, his muzzle still twisted in a frown. Eni pulled her paw away and desperately groped for something to say. "I think…" Eni began slowly, piecing her thoughts together as she spoke, "I think the Archons meant those goats to be a… a sacrifice. Nergora must be their god."

Tsar nodded, but his eyes remained distant and far off. It was the last thing Eni saw clearly before the flaming remains of her lantern flared briefly and burned out, leaving the room almost completely unlit. "You understood it too," he said, "That symbol."

Eni wanted to protest that it meant nothing to her, but she realized that would be a lie. The strange twisting glyph stood for sacrifice, she knew, as clearly as if it had been written in Nihu. "But… I've never even seen a language like it," she protested, "And… and that's not how languages work. Someone has to teach you how to read them, the way I've been teaching you. You can't just look at a word and…"

Eni trailed off as Tsar levelly looked at her, and the awful truth struck her. She had been taught what the symbol meant, in a perverse and twisted way. The lesson had been backwards, seeing first the sacrifice and then the symbol that stood for it, but the two were inexorably linked in her mind. The glyph felt burned into her brain, and Eni knew she would have no more difficulty writing it down without a reference than she would writing a journal entry.

"It's Derkomai," Tsar said, as simply as though that explained everything, and although it was too dark for her to see him clearly he apparently had no trouble understanding Eni's blank look.

"The language of magic," he continued, "I'd heard it existed but never seen it."

"The language of magic," Eni repeated, her voice full of wonder, "Which means…"

"Power," Tsar said simply, "Not raw strength, but perfect focus."

Eni thought his words over carefully, thinking through the implications. A language that could take every concept of magic and render it into concrete terms was exactly the sort of thing she had hoped for. There would be no guesswork or imprecision, only complete understanding. Now that she knew it was possible, she wondered what else the Archons knew. Somehow she doubted that they understood more than a few words; it didn't seem as though they would have to go to such great lengths if their knowledge was absolute.

That was a cold comfort; if Idrun was a failure she had the idea that their successes would be even more monstrous. "We've got to go," Tsar said abruptly, "They'll be at the tomb."

He drew his whip-sword and made it flare to fiery life, knocking the typewriters and cipher engines to the floor before igniting all of the bundles of paper and books by the printing press. With a final and almost lazy flick of the wrist he set the black banner with the Derkomai glyph ablaze, not sparing a look at it as he left the room. Eni followed him but couldn't resist a final backwards glance, and for an instant the banner burned as though it was a leering face.

Eni shook her head and turned to face Tsar's back, following him up to the surface. She was sure he had been right; there would be someone at Wordermund's Mausoleum. Eni knew exactly who it would be, too, and she told herself she was ready to confront Astrasa again.

She could only hope she was right.

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