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Chapter 34: Katabasis

Updated: Nov 16, 2023



Tsar had started running the instant they were back outside, and Eni couldn't keep up.

She pushed herself as hard as she could, ignoring the searing pain in her side and the throbbing spots of color at the edges of her vision, but she simply wasn't quick enough. The wolf was as fast as a sprinter, but his pace didn't slacken even as his long strides ate up block after block. Eni's satchel dug into her shoulders, bouncing jarringly against the small of her back, and it seemed to get heavier as Tsar's lead kept growing.

His back shrank as he was ahead first twenty yards and then a hundred, and a burst of fear filled Eni's heart. "Tsar!" she yelled, "Tsar!"

He didn't stop.

The wolf was getting harder to spot; the streets of Ghabarahata were starting to refill with its citizens and they all wore the same black robes and concealing masks. If it weren't for how Tsar was the only one running down the street, Eni doubted she would have been able to track who he was, and a fresh twinge of anxiety ran down her spine. What if she had lost sight of him?

Perhaps when a crowd had passed by, she had missed him taking a sudden turn down an alley and she was running after someone to whom the name Tsar meant nothing. She tried to reassure herself that the figure in front of her had to be him since it was headed in the direction of the mausoleum. The thought refused to leave Eni's mind, and she slammed her way through the crush of bodies on the street in her desperation.

There was no time to apologize or beg pardons, and she didn't have the precious air to do so, anyway. There was only the mammal she had spent years searching for, and she only had eyes for catching him. She caught cries of annoyance and anger as she pressed her way through the teeming throngs, completely unable to slip past shoulders and tails with the easy grace of her companion.

The lead of the mammal she was chasing was almost two hundred yards, and Eni was gasping for breath behind her suffocating mask. Her arms pistoned at her sides as her legs felt heavy as lead, her feet numb from their impact against the cobbled street. She strained herself, trying to find a hidden reserve of speed, but there was nothing. "Tsar!" she screamed, "Stop!"

Passersby were looking at her, smooth masks turning in her direction even as their faces remained hidden, but Eni was beyond caring. There was a tightness in her chest that had nothing to do with her exhaustion, and she plowed ahead. Her heart burned as she panted, straining to catch up, and she desperately reached out, straining to snag the back of Tsar's robe.

They were so far apart it was ludicrous to try. The distance between them had grown so long she wouldn't have even been able to hit him with a thrown rock, and her arms could have no more stretched hundreds of yards than she could have crossed it in a single bounding leap. But as she stared through the confining eyeholes of her mask, pushing for reserves that just weren't there, something shifted in her heart. She could feel the power inside her straining for release and she didn't have the strength to pull it back. For an instant, the only thing Eni could hear was her own heart, pounding so fast that it was a single sound like the rushing of a river.

And then she could hear everything.

She could hear thousands of conversations, jumbled and overlapping as they took place across the entire city. Her mind strained and stretched and for an instant she was big enough to contain them all. The lovers quarrelling over their dinner plans. The child begging her parents to go see the parade. The merchant and the customer haggling over the price of a hot meal. Eni was hearing every single one and so many more that it was as though she had become a book. Every word felt as though it was being etched into her skin and she gasped at the feeling.

It wasn't pleasure or pain. It was beyond anything so mundane, beyond anything she would have guessed it was possible for a mammal to bear. Everything was wonderfully, terribly alive, and she heard it all. Carts and feet beat out complex rhythms like an orchestra the size of the world itself, with the beating of hundreds of thousands of hearts as counterpoints. They syncopated, but it was not discordant in the slightest. It was beautiful in a way beyond words, and Eni felt herself become awe.

There was no other way to put it; she was beyond a body. She was beyond thought. She was beyond anything but existing in the moment, and she felt all of reality flow dreamily through her consciousness. Sounds nudged and pulled at her, each one of them exquisite. The jangle of buckles on fifty thousand satchels was like a revelation Eni wished she could share; surely none of the mammals who carried those bags knew how wonderful they all sounded in harmony. Doors opening and closing were so similar and yet so distinct, each one identifying itself by its timbre and echo in a manner as unique as a tiger's stripes. Banners and flags rippled in the wind, cracking out a report on direction and intensity so precise that Eni knew exactly what every inch of the city felt like. Even the sound of eating, of mammals almost beyond counting doing it as one, was like music. Eni could tell what each of them was chewing, from salads to salmon, from sweets to stews. She could hear every home, every restaurant, every food stall, every tiny tunnel under the streets, and she knew Ghabarahata in a way beyond anyone before her.

But no matter how the city assaulted what had been her ears, no matter how it reverberated and chimed and tolled, there was nothing better than everyone's hearts beating their own personal rhythm. Every single one told a story, from how old a mammal was to how healthy they were. There were the steady, bright beats of the young and vibrant. There were the feeble, unsteady ones of the elderly and the sick. There were the pulses of badgers and moose and sheep and deer, of mammals in all their dizzying multitudes, but there were three that stood out.

A hare.

A wolf.

A leopard.

For one glorious moment they all synchronized before spreading apart again, and Eni felt as though there was no distance between her and Tsar and Lieren. And then there was something else so faint it was almost imperceptible. It wasn't quite one of the sounds that had dominated her, and she groped for it, straining for the gap in what she perceived. There was—

"Eni."

Her name being spoken cut through everything else, all the noise and chatter cleaving apart in the face of the word. She tried shaking her head, to say that she couldn't be interrupted when she was so close to figuring something out, but she still had no body. Her power wasn't inside her; it was her, but then it all started raveling back together. Her perception of the entire city faded and dimmed so quickly it was like the sun being eclipsed, her understanding vanishing as she became too small to handle it all. As the reaches of her mind receded the noise became a cacophony, an overwhelming mess that was too much to bear. She cried out, silently at first, and then she had a mouth again and her scream was given a voice.

Through it all, as she collapsed back into nothing more than a hare, was that one single word. "Eni."

She blearily blinked her eyes and found herself looking up into the smoothly featureless lines of a polished mask. She was flat on her back, staring up at the night sky, and the mammal looming over her could have been anyone. With his face hidden and his body shrouded in a cloak, he was the very ideal of Ghabarahata, a mammal who blended in perfectly.

Except for his pale blue eyes.

Those Eni would know anywhere, and she felt Tsar's arms grab hers as he pulled her to her feet. She swayed unsteadily as she was forced upright, painfully aware of a small crowd that had gathered around the two of them and muttered to themselves. Their voices were like icepicks in her ears, all murmured comments and jibes. "I'm fine," Eni said, and her voice was far too loud, "Just… Just slipped."

She staggered against Tsar's shoulder, and he was as immovable as a mountain as she stumbled. Her legs, which had felt heavy not so long ago, felt as immaterial as clouds. She seemed to practically drift through the crowd as Tsar guided her, and Eni was dimly aware of how graceful he was. There was an elegance to him she could never have matched, and he pulled gently and steadily for another block before they were past a large crowd of Ghabarahatans in the street and down a twisting alleyway.

The instant they were alone, Tsar turned to her. "I shouldn't have run," he said quietly, and Eni wished she could see his face; his tone was utterly neutral, "I didn't—"

"I'm slowing you down," Eni interrupted, "I—"

"You don't—" Tsar began.

"We should—" Eni said, cutting him off.

"Let's keep going," she said at the same instant Tsar did, and she felt a dim echo of the synchronicity she had felt when her heart beat in time with his and Lieren's.

Tsar set off again, but he wasn't running nearly as fast as he had before. If anything, he seemed to be letting her set the pace, and Eni settled for a rapid jog to eat up the distance between them and the mausoleum. Her sense of weakness had faded rapidly, and as she focused on her breathing and the smooth coordination of her arms and legs she felt almost normal.

"What did you see?" Tsar asked after a moment, "Felt your magic."

He was at her side, his voice utterly unstrained as he asked the question. Eni considered it for a few strides, turning her answer over in her head, before answering, "It was my hearing."

She puffed out each word, trying to keep from gasping for air, and continued. "I could hear everything in the city. Everything. I heard her heart."

Tsar didn't need to ask who she meant. "She's at the tomb," he said, and it wasn't a question.

"Yes," Eni said, the answer coming before she could think it through.

She knew she was right, but her mind no longer felt vast enough to hold what she had learned. Information seemed to be dribbling out of her like sand through an hourglass or water through a leaky pipe, and what had once been so clear felt increasingly vague. There had been something else, she knew, something important, but her understanding of Ghabarahata had faded. It hadn't been quite a vision, like looking at a painting or a map and seeing where things were placed. It had been nothing but sound, but somehow she had grasped what each one meant, like some kind of echolocation above and beyond what bats were capable of.

"But…" she continued slowly, feeling for the right thing to say even as the words left her mouth, "There was something else. Something…"

Tsar waited with perfect patience as she dredged her memory for an answer. They jogged in silence, and the tall and proud buildings they passed seemed somehow duller than usual. Normally, Eni would have loved the view of the elegantly carved facades and graceful arches, but after what she had heard Ghabarahata felt oddly plain. The city lacked its usual vibrant character, and even the glittering glass mosaics interspersed here and there felt colorless by comparison. Eni felt as though she might as well have been fumbling around a sewer in the dark for all that it impressed her, and then something clicked into place.

"Underground," she blurted, "There's something underground."

Tsar turned and looked at her, his face hidden but his eyes glittering with interest through the slits of his mask. "What?" he asked, but despite how simple it had been for him to ask, Eni had no idea how to answer.

She had felt it, something that was somehow like Tsar and the Woemaker and herself and yet somehow not. "It was…" Eni began, trying to keep her steady pace as the mausoleum loomed in the distance, "It was something…"

The impression she had gotten made no sense in the world of the mundane, where running was exhausting and every one of the muscles in her legs ached. Eni tried reaching for the utter clarity she had felt and spoke again. "Like a mage," she continued, although that didn't quite feel right, "Like a mammal but…"

Eni paused again as she stared ahead; their destination wasn't more than five city blocks away, and the parts of the ancient emperor's tomb below its famous dome were coming into sight. The twisting confluence of the pillars that supported the delicate rotunda, which rose in a gracefully organic way like the branches of a tree despite their geometric precision, were plainly visible over the buildings in the way. Eni knew they couldn't be more than a few minutes away and she fumbled for words. "But not," she finished lamely.

"Like the monster in Ctesiphon?" Tsar asked, showing no signs of exertion, and Eni considered his suggestion.

"It was like that," she said slowly in between gasps for breath, "But…"

"But not," he said quietly, echoing her words.

Eni fell silent as she racked her brain for a better answer, and Wordermund's Mausoleum rose before them in all its splendor. It was nearly the size of a castle by itself, and despite its age the gleaming walls of black marble were so clean and shiny that it looked newly built. Some of the sharper edges had worn to gentle curves, but it was almost as though the building had come into the form its designers meant it to have centuries after the work had been completed. There was an elegance and a flow to the design that made it the most famous example of Imperial architecture, something that was often imitated but never equaled.

It was also still surrounded by mammals.

Eni couldn't guess how vast the crowd must have been before they had finished reciting Wordermund's Requiem, but even after dispersing there still had to be hundreds of citizens in black robes, holding candles and standing in vigil as they watched the dead lion's final resting place. Tsar suddenly came to a stop and Eni gratefully did the same, bending over to place her paws on her knees as she greedily sucked in the fresh night air.

"Can you swim?" Tsar asked, turning to Eni.

He had brought up the topic so abruptly that Eni wondered what linkage had been perfectly clear in his mind but that she simply didn't see. The mausoleum did have a reflecting pool in front of it, but the water couldn't have been more than a foot deep; it would barely wet Eni's feet if she stood in it. Otherwise, there wasn't so much as a drop in sight, and she stared at his impassive mask. Tsar's body language didn't look at all perturbed, but Eni supposed that didn't really count for much, considering how difficult he was to read at the best of times.

"I practically learned to swim before I could walk," Eni said as she stood upright, still trying to figure out why he had asked, "I grew up in a fishing village."

He made a wordless noise that might have been approval or appreciation, and then turned to face the mausoleum. "Can't go in through the doors," he said, nodding in their direction, "Too many watching. It'd be… troubling."

Eni let out a disbelieving snort of laughter, and although both their faces were hidden by their masks there was no mistaking the manner in which Tsar's head cocked to the side as he looked at her. "We couldn't open them," she said, "They're too heavy. A team of six elephants tried robbing the vault five centuries after Wordermund died and they couldn't shift the doors an inch."

"I could open them," Tsar said, and a chill ran down Eni's spine at the words.

It was not, she could tell, an idle boast. There was firm confidence in what he had said, and she stared at the doors, her mouth falling in awe. There were two of them, each a mirror of the other, and they stood nearly fifty feet tall. The hinges were hidden away on the inside of the tomb, but Eni had seen copies of the original architect's plans; the pins that kept them together were so large she couldn't have wrapped her arms around one. The doors themselves were made entirely of Aurum Regis, the metal as glittering and untarnished as gold but tougher than the finest steel, and if the drawings were right they were nearly ten feet thick. Despite their enormous size, they met so precisely in the center that Eni wouldn't have been able to get her smallest finger into the crack, and there wasn't even a lock. The doors were instead completely covered with carvings telling the story of every one of Wordermund's great victories, broken only where they went around a pair of gigantic rings at the center of each door. It would require a team of hundreds of mammals to seize the massive engraved pulls and force the doors open.

Or the Slayer alone.

But as confident as he was, he was right. The doors to Wordermund's Mausoleum had never been opened after the emperor had been interred; it would be utter pandemonium if Tsar did. "So how did Astrasa get in?" Eni asked, "Did she swim?"

Based on Tsar's odd question it was the only logical possibility she could think of, although she had no idea what good swimming would do. The diagrams she had seen that described in exacting detail the way the tomb had been built certainly didn't show any sort of way in or out other than the lone pair of doors, and they were nowhere near the river.

"Probably," Tsar said, "Lost her scent in the water."

Eni simply stared at the reflecting pools, but no matter how carefully she looked there was absolutely no sign of a hidden entrance into the mausoleum. "Not those," Tsar said, shaking his head, "This way."

He started slowly circling the tomb; it stood at the center of a vast plaza and there was plenty of ground to cover. Tsar wasn't running, although he was walking with a notable deliberateness, and no one seemed to pay them any attention. At last, when they were on the opposite side of the mausoleum from where the main doors were, Tsar drifted slowly away. He paced carefully until they were beyond the grounds and back in the city itself, and he kept walking until they were in front of a fountain that was rather modest by the standards of Ghabarahata. It had a wide basin perhaps fifteen feet in diameter, topped with a life-size figure of a mammal spouting water that was so badly worn away it was impossible to tell what it had been. Seemingly without a care, Tsar simply waded into the water, which wasn't deep enough to go past his ankles, and he motioned for Eni to do the same.

She did, feeling a bit foolish as she stepped over the curving marble lip of the fountain and into the chilly water, but Tsar was oblivious. He reached down, plunging his arms in with a splash, and started running his fingers slowly across the bottom. "Are… Are you sure this is the way the Woemaker came?" Eni asked.

Rather than answer with words, Tsar suddenly gripped at something under the surface and pulled. He carelessly set aside a circular piece of stone nearly five feet in diameter, revealing a yawning chasm that the water started rushing into. It was too dark to see where it ended; there was a carved ladder descending down into the depths but what was beyond that could have been anything. The water level in the fountain started slowly sinking as it began draining ever so slightly faster than it was being replaced, and Eni glanced about.

No passersby were looking in their direction, and by the time Eni looked back at the hole Tsar had already half-vanished into it. She waited just long enough for him to be clear before she started climbing down after him, straining her ears and trying to be mindful of his fingers as she took step after step. "I've never seen this on any map of Ghabarahata," Eni said in a low voice, but the words still echoed around her.

Tsar grunted, but said nothing else, and Eni wished she had a way to carry a lantern and descend the stone ladder. The rungs were slippery and it took all her care to avoid falling first on Tsar's head and then into whatever was beneath them as they kept going down. Eni wondered what sights she was missing as the circle of sky above them started dimming, the darkness becoming almost absolute. If the passage did connect to the mausoleum, and Eni had no reason to suspect it did not, she was making the sort of discovery most antiquarians dreamed about. The rulers of Ghabarahata famously rejected any petition to open the tomb, and for centuries historians had relied on the few scraps of information left from when it had been built. If there was a way in without unsealing the doors, though, she was about to see for herself what treasure the lion had taken with him.

Eni giggled suddenly, and she nearly lost her grip on the slick stone rungs. She couldn't help it; the absurdity of what she was doing had struck her full force. She was descending into the depths of Aerodan, completely blind and with a ruthless mage certainly waiting for her. For all Eni knew, the general was at the bottom with her gauntlet ready, eager to finish what she had started. But despite it all, her thoughts had turned to antiquities.

The nervous sound of her laughter echoed as she clung on tight, hearing nothing else but the dripping of water and Tsar's own slow descent. She could tell he had stopped, and she tried to control herself, biting at the inside of her cheek to keep her mouth shut. "Eni?" Tsar asked, his voice drifting up from beneath her.

"It's… It's nothing," Eni said, "I just… I just…"

The humor was suddenly gone, and she swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry. The realization that something terrible was going to happen had filled her so completely that there was no doubt in her heart. Astrasa had toyed with her in Tormurghast, but she had no reason to play when whatever the leopardess was planning was on the line. When they met again, Eni knew, she would be the Woemaker through and through. A soldier in the purpose of her inscrutable cause, utterly without mercy or pity. "I'm afraid," she whispered, and she heard her voice tremble.

"What was funny?" he asked, and Eni could tell he still hadn't moved.

Eni was silent a moment, and then Tsar spoke again, his voice soft and encouraging. "Tell me," he said.

She could imagine him, clinging to the ladder with all four limbs and perhaps bracing himself against the far wall of the seemingly endless cylinder with his tail. His head would be raised, cocked to the side as it always was when he was uncertain or questioning, and the picture in Eni's head felt so real she could almost see it. "I was thinking about what entering Wordermund's Mausoleum would mean for the university," she said, trying to pull the stuffy words of academia from her mind, "There's so much we only know from second- or third-hand accounts, and many of them are fragmentary. The best copy of the original architect's plans is only about forty percent complete, you know."

"I didn't know that," Tsar said, and Eni laughed again.

The sound of it was higher than usual, but it didn't quite have the same shrill edge to it. "So I was thinking, I ought to be afraid, but I was just thinking about history. And then…"

"And then you started being afraid," Tsar said quietly.

Eni nodded, and then realized he almost certainly couldn't see what she was doing. It didn't matter how good his eyes were; they had gone so far down that she couldn't see so much as a glimmer of light from the surface. "Yes," she admitted.

"Pick a direction," Tsar said simply.

There was no harshness or kindness to his voice; his words were bland and neutral. "Up or down," he continued, his voice still unreadable, "You can go either way."

Eni took a deep breath, and she knew he was right. "Down," she said.

Tsar's only answer was the sound of him continuing to descend, and Eni forced herself to do the same. Fear still gnawed at her stomach, and she could feel her nose twitch behind her mask, but she knew she couldn't possibly give up. They kept going down in silence, and every time Eni was sure that they must be nearly at the bottom another minute would stretch past with no change in the quality of the sounds.

Although the tube had seemed generously wide from the surface, so far below the ground it felt suffocating, as though the walls were slowly closing in on her. But Tsar's heart remained slow and steady, and Eni focused on it to the exclusion of all else.

She was paying such close attention that she didn't even notice when he stopped, and she gave a yelp of surprise when the top of his head suddenly pressed up against her bottom. For a single awful moment she was sure it was Astrasa, and then she pulled herself up a half-step. "We're at the bottom," Tsar said, his voice echoing, and then there was a sudden hiss of a match as he lit a lantern.

It threw off a feeble light as he shuffled out of the way so that Eni could get to the floor herself, and Eni looked around the dim sphere of brightness. They were in a tunnel that stretched out in the distance in either direction, and Tsar carefully set his light on the floor. Beneath their feet were tiles slimy with moss, but the water couldn't have been more than an inch or two deep. From the waterlines on the smooth stone of the walls it looked as though the tunnel was usually filled, and Eni frowned.

Tsar took off his mask and threw it aside, and his Ghabarahatan cloak was next. Eni eagerly followed his example, grateful to get the suffocating clothes off, and then peeled off her outer jacket. It was warmer than she would have guessed; the air was hot and humid, like the insides of some terrible beast, but it was still a relief to breathe without a mask in the way.

"This way," Tsar said, picking up his lantern with his tail and heading in the direction of Wordermund's Mausoleum.

He drew his whip-sword but did not ignite it, his head tracking slowly back and forth down the tunnel. It was so smooth that Eni felt as though they were inside a vast pipe, and it was just as straight as one too. Their footsteps echoed, as though there was an army approaching from either side, and Eni nervously glanced over her shoulder as she lit her own lantern.

There was nothing, and she turned back to follow Tsar. She had expected the tunnel to slope upwards, considering how far beneath Aerodan they were, but if anything it seemed to be at a slight downhill incline. It made it difficult to keep her balance, and as Eni carefully picked her steps she accidentally kicked a rock. She froze as the small stone bounced off ahead into the gloom, and then grabbed Tsar's arm. "Look!" she said, her voice urgent but still soft.

She pointed toward the floor of the tunnel, where there was a hole perhaps a foot across in the wall. A small pile of rubble surrounded it, and Tsar bent down, picking up one of the pebbles. He turned it over in his fingers, a frown on his face, and Eni knew why. It was clear that the tunnel was usually filled with water, but the piece Tsar held was sharp and jagged, completely unsmoothed by time and wear. The hole it had come from wasn't perfectly circular, either. It was lopsided and not quite even, and the edges had an odd look to them.

It was as though something had gnawed the hole.

Realization hit Eni like a thunderbolt. "That's what I heard down here!" she said, "There's something chewing tunnels beneath the city."

"A rajah," Tsar said, tossing the stone aside, "I smell rat."

It all came into focus for Eni. Rajahs were the rare and terrible Aberrant form of rats, said to be far more intelligent than their somnolent brethren. "This can't be a coincidence," Eni said firmly, "I know you—"

"Don't believe in them," Tsar said in unison with her, and then he kept walking.

"How would Astrasa convince a rajah, of all creatures, to dig tunnels under the city for her? And why?" Eni asked; no matter how much she ran the idea through her head it didn't make any sense.

A light suddenly snapped into existence a hundred yards ahead of them. Eni's eyes were momentarily dazzled by how extraordinarily bright it was before she was able to make out the figure it threw into shimmering relief. It was tall and so curvaceous as to be unmistakably feminine. Eni blinked, utterly unable to believe her eyes as she made out the figure's features; of all the mammals who could have possibly been waiting for them, what she saw was not at all what she had expected.

"You can try asking her," a voice as familiar as the face of the mammal asked.

A smile spread across the figure's face, and Eni knew it perfectly well. Of course she did. She heard the voice every day of her life, and she saw that face every time she looked into something reflective.

A hare who was Eni's perfect double was looking back at her, and her duplicate's smile suddenly twisted into something cruel and predatory. Eni caught only a glimpse of it before the figure's light went out, plunging her back into darkness. "But I wouldn't count on an answer," the mammal said, and the voice was no longer Eni's.

It was Astrasa's.














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