Eni stood frozen in place, her mouth instantly dry with fear. The Woemaker was going to come for them, she knew. It would only take a second for those merciless fingers to be around her neck again in a grip as unyielding as iron, and then it would all be over. She strained her ears desperately, but the tunnel made sounds so distorted and echoing that it was impossible to tell where anything was. There could have been footsteps ahead of them or behind them, a hundred yards off or right in front of her nose, but it was all just noise.
With Astrasa's sun-bright light out, all that illuminated the path ahead was the feeble combined glow of Eni's lantern with Tsar's, and infinite shadowy darkness loomed beyond. Eni's breath came as rapidly as the pounding of her heart as she clutched her trident with a death grip, switching from one guard position to another as she desperately tried thinking of how the leopardess would approach.
Tsar hadn't left Eni's side, and he remained almost utterly motionless, his head cocked to the side and his ears leaning forward. His nostrils flared in and out, sampling the air for something Eni couldn't smell, and she was sure that his whip-sword would suddenly strike out into the void.
But nothing happened.
Five seconds passed, and then ten, but there was absolutely no sign of Astrasa. The maddening echo of footsteps stopped as suddenly as a faucet being turned off, and for an instant the tunnel was so silent that the absence of noise felt like a physical blow. It was as though the very concept of sound had been abolished; all of the usual small noises, from Eni's own blood flowing through her veins or air passing through her lungs, had simply ceased. There was no ringing in her ears or a sense of pressure against them, and Eni felt a trickle of fear spreading down her back. Her grip on her trident grew so tight it felt fused to her palm; she was sure that Astrasa would leap at her.
Eni's hearing returned so abruptly that she almost dropped her lantern, the faint trickling of running water ahead seeming as deafening as a firework. At her side, Tsar relaxed minutely, fixing his gaze fully forward. "She's gone ahead," he said, his voice so calm he almost sounded bored, "Come on."
"She couldn't have gotten past us, could she?" Eni asked, although she didn't quite dare glance over her shoulder.
"No," Tsar said, and he began walking.
Eni hurried after him, the idea of being left behind nearly as frightening as the Woemaker herself. "What was that?" Eni demanded, "How'd she…"
Eni groped for the right words but came up blank. She had no idea how she'd describe what the leopardess had done, but Tsar seemed not to need any further explanation. "Illusion," he said simply, "Fooling your best sense so you couldn't tell where she went."
She remembered how Ceslaus's illusions had been utterly silent and shuddered. "What about you, though?" Eni asked, her voice hushed as she kept listening intently, her eyes roaming back and forth as she tried peering into the darkness, "Can you smell… Can you smell that?"
She had been about to ask if Tsar could still track the leopardess, but as she had started asking the question her nose had caught a whiff of something else. It was faint, sweet and fresh compared to the damp and moldy scent that filled the tunnel, but somehow oddly familiar. "Yes," Tsar said, his tone still even although it occurred to Eni it had been a profoundly stupid question to ask, "Covering her scent."
Eni frowned. "With what?" she asked, "I almost recognize it."
The answer didn't particularly matter, but she needed something to focus on beside the terrible sense that an attack was coming. Tsar didn't show the slightest sign of fear, and Eni could feel herself grasping onto his certainty, trying to claim it for herself and push down the churning in her stomach. "You," Tsar said simply, and Eni wished she hadn't asked.
At the very least, he didn't seem to find the scent repulsive, but the last thing Eni needed to hear was that Astrasa's mimicry could be so accurate. She swallowed the lump that was lodged in her throat and nodded. Tsar was advancing cautiously, his eyes constantly roaming the tunnel ahead and his ears pitching this way and that. He didn't seem to be sniffing the air anymore, but the scent that filled the tunnel had gotten so strong that it completely blotted out everything else for Eni. She couldn't imagine what it must have been like for his far more sensitive nose; she had never been particularly conscious of her own scent but she was sure it was not usually so overpowering.
The tunnel ahead looked much the same as it had behind them, although after a few minutes of careful progress it finally changed. The floor of the tunnel leveled out, no longer descending into the depths of Aerodan, and it widened as it stretched ahead. It was just as dark as it had been, but that gloom somehow seemed even more oppressive when their lanterns weren't bright enough to illuminate the walls. The sound of running water grew louder, and as they kept walking Eni saw why.
Ahead of them was a massive chasm, the floor splitting around it so that there were paths on either side of the pit. Eni could just barely see the glint of water reflecting her lamp in the distance and realized that they had to be looking at part of Ghabarahata's sewer system. Thankfully, the water must have only been runoff from fountains and the like, because the air didn't become foul and hard to breathe. Tsar halted suddenly, a frown creasing his muzzle.
He looked about in all directions. "The false scent goes along the left branch," he said, but he wasn't making any movement in that direction.
Tsar's tail lifted his lantern higher as he illuminated both paths on either side of the massive drop that led into the sewer's depths. "What about down?" Eni asked, gulping as she peered over the edge into the darkness, "Anything down?"
"Not down," he said quietly, "But…"
Rather than finish with words, he simply shrugged his shoulders. Eni understood what he was getting at; however the Woemaker had copied Eni's scent, it was a false trail. If she really could somehow obliterate her own scent, she might have gone along the right branch or even down into the sewer.
"Well…" Eni said slowly, thinking carefully, "We've gone deep enough that the mausoleum has to be above us. I'm not sure if we've gone far enough, but it has to be ahead, right? Unless the paths really branch off, either one could work. But… Maybe there's another entrance hidden further down, and she's trying to trick us into continuing forward."
Tsar nodded absently, sweeping his lantern along the wall as he apparently looked for some kind of clue. Eni hesitated, trying to figure out the path the crafty leopardess would have taken, and strained her ears for any sign of her. Beside the gentle sounds she and Tsar made, from the whisper of their clothes brushing together to the steady sounds of their pulses, all she heard was the steady flow of water coming from the far side of the pit before them. There was the occasional sound of it dripping and splashing, and Eni was about to suggest they take the right path when she heard something that had no place at all in a sewer.
It had been a droplet of something splashing, but it didn't sound like water. There was an oddly heavy quality to it, and Eni's head and ears both snapped up toward the ceiling. All she saw was more damp and moss-covered tiling, much like the walls and the floor, and she stared, wondering if her nerves had gotten the better of her. Water droplets formed here and there between the tiles, and Tsar didn't seem to have noticed the strange sound.
As Eni watched, her lantern lifted high, a drop of falling liquid caught the light and flared brilliantly. It shimmered like a mirror shard, and when Eni tracked its fall it simply vanished as it should have gone down the center of the chasm. "Tsar!" Eni cried, "There's another illusion!"
As he spun to face her, she pointed first at the ceiling and then down at the pit, and the wolf's whip-sword flared to life. He struck out with it, the burning segments lashing out, and suddenly things looked quite different.
The chasm was still there, but instead of being a simple void there was a massive structure that looked like an overgrown vase in the center. It plunged into the pit's gloom, so Eni supposed that it probably reached into the same depths that the sewers did, but it was full. There was a pool perhaps fifteen feet across, and it almost looked as though an enormous mirror had been fit across it. As Eni looked up at the ceiling, though, there was another change. Centered directly over the pool was a giant grate, thousands of glittering glass tubes as thin as straws protruding through, and from one of them another brilliant drop fell. It barely rippled the surface, but it was enough for Eni to be absolutely sure what it was.
"Quicksilver," she said, "There must be tons of it."
Tsar nodded, looking into the pool of silvery liquid. "I should have noticed," he said, "Why did she try hiding this?"
Eni brushed the implied compliment aside, because the question he had asked was the same one that had occurred to her. It wasn't as though Astrasa had hidden a door in the ceiling; the glass tubes were all so thin that Eni couldn't have fit a finger into one, let alone gotten her entire body through. They looked to be set rather securely into the stone, too, and there were none of the tell-tale signs of tampering Eni was familiar with as an antiquarian.
Then the answer struck her and she laughed in surprise and triumph. "It's because Elmarsus was right!" she said, reeling with the realization, "He was right!"
"Who?" Tsar asked, frowning.
"He was a historian in my graduating class, but that's not important," Eni said, "It was his thesis. He reconstructed bills of lading from when Wordermund's Mausoleum was built. There were records of thousands of pounds of pitch being ordered for ship-building around the same time, but it was far too much."
She was almost babbling with her excitement, and from the way Tsar was looking at her she was sure he was utterly lost. "Elmarsus proposed that the pitch was actually ordered for the tomb. He thought it was to seal it against vermin, but it wasn't. They needed pitch to ensure it was air-tight. Don't you see?" Eni asked, gesturing wildly at the tubes overhead, "The mausoleum is in a vacuum!"
Tsar looked at her blankly; apparently the revelation meant nothing to him.
"These quicksilver tubes… It's a vacuum pump. As the quicksilver drips, it catches pockets of air in the glass tubes, and then it gets forced out at the bottom," Eni said, "And then the quicksilver gets collected here."
She pointed to the massive vessel filled with the liquid metal. "But there must be a way to get the quicksilver back to the top," Eni said, "Or the vacuum pump would stop once it runs out of quicksilver. So there must be a second pump. Probably water-powered, I think."
"You've seen something like this before?" Tsar asked.
His tone was more thoughtful than skeptical, and Eni nodded eagerly. "Never one so big, but I'm sure Rongen has a pump like this in his workshop. Quicksilver lets you get all the air out, and there aren't any moving parts to wear out, either. If the quicksilver reservoir is large enough, the second pump wouldn't need to run very often."
"This pump is running," Tsar said, watching as a droplet of quicksilver formed and fell, and Eni nodded.
"Slowly, though. This kind of pump starts running faster and faster as it evacuates more and more air out of the chamber. Which means Astrasa must be in the mausoleum right now," Eni said, "It'll take hours, maybe days, to get all the air out again."
Tsar nodded. "What are we looking for?" he asked.
"The way Astrasa got into the tomb… It must be near the second pump. It's probably where the waterfall is," Eni said, and without another word Tsar started in the indicated direction.
He was still being exquisitely careful as he made his way around the left branch; Eni supposed that he was just as mindful as she was of the possibility that the leopardess might have left some kind of trap for them. No hidden metal jaws snapped around his leg, but Eni made sure to place her feet exactly where he put his. They moved quickly around the chasm and the giant pool of quicksilver at its center, at last coming to the waterfall that cascaded into the depths of the sewers down below. "The false trail keeps going," Tsar said quietly, indicating vaguely with one paw.
Eni thought that there might have been some respect in how he said the words, but she hadn't been looking at his face as he spoke. She had craned her neck up to look at the outlet the water came through; it was a giant pipe perhaps ten feet around and angled slightly. Although it was at least five feet thick at its top, the lower lip had eroded significantly, making the opening look like an egg. "See how thick it is?" Eni said, fascinated by what she saw, "This must be the pressure blow-off, too."
She squinted up at it, frowning. "But I don't see where—" she began to say, but before she could finish Tsar's whip-sword lashed out again.
Watching the illusion fade was like holding a piece of paper up to the sun and seeing text written on the other side. For an instant, reality and mirage overlapped, but as what was actually there won out Eni saw that there was a thick steel bar running horizontally across the pipe a few feet back from its outlet. The ancient metal was pitted and dull, except for where a series of scratches had exposed the gleaming interior.
With a flick of Tsar's wrist, the whip-sword extinguished itself and shot out again, wrapping around the bar. He gave it an experimental tug, and then looked from it to Eni. "I'll go first," he said.
Before she even had a chance to reply, he was shimmying up the weapon, his fingers and toes avoiding the sharpened segments with what looked like the ease of long practice. He was up inside the pipe in a matter of seconds, but Eni looked at it doubtfully. Visions of horribly slicing herself apart if she made a single misstep filled her head, and Tsar noticed her hesitation. "Just grab the end," he said, and no sooner had she done so than he began hauling her up.
Although he braced his back against the inner wall of the pipe, he gave absolutely no other sign of her weight being any kind of bother. His arms worked smoothly and quickly, and Eni was standing next to him so fast she almost had vertigo. An instant later he had freed his whip-sword and was walking up the pipe, one arm braced against its side. The flow of water underfoot wasn't particularly fast, but the curved floor was treacherously slick and Eni picked each step carefully.
After a few minutes they came to a wide and tall cylindrical chamber, and in one wall there was a massive circular door. The door was made entirely of metal and had a peculiar design; it looked as though it slid up and down inside the wall. Eni glanced about the room, and when she saw that the ceiling was also metal it all suddenly made sense. "We're standing in a piston," Eni said, "There must be at least three pumps. This one is a backup for the quicksilver pump in case it fails. That door must be the valve."
Eni frowned as she inspected the room, trying to map out the design of the mechanisms she saw. "Now we know why Astrasa had a rajah digging tunnels," she said, "This pump must be powered by a water wheel, the same as the pump to refill the quicksilver reservoir. Do you see what they did? They must have reversed the flow of water to this pump, so it was pumping air into the mausoleum. It's big enough to work faster, so it didn't matter that the quicksilver pump doesn't stop."
"Seems complicated," Tsar observed, his eyes locked on the valve.
"The architect wanted it to last," Eni said, "Even the best seals will leak a little over time, and this tomb was supposed to last forever. They figured out a way to keep it in a vacuum for thousands of years."
"So why isn't it running?" Tsar asked.
He was indisputably correct; the ceiling wasn't descending at all, but Eni was confident she knew why. "They must have disengaged the clutch once there was enough air in the chamber; too much pressure is just as bad for a mammal as too little. Astrasa probably didn't want us to hear it running, either."
"Then that's our way in?" Tsar asked.
"That's our way in," Eni said, "It'll be wide enough for us to pass."
Tsar crossed the chamber, apparently uncaring about the possibility for the piston to suddenly go back into action and squash him flat, and strained against the door. There was a nearly inaudible popping noise as he did, and Eni could feel the fur on her ears shifting as the air feebly rushed forward. She knew that meant the pressure inside the mausoleum was barely lower than the pressure outside it, but that seemed like a good thing. At the very least, it suggested there was enough breathable air inside for her and Tsar, and she hurried after him.
Although Eni's stomach felt like a quivering bundle of knotted strings as she crawled in through the opening, she knew it wasn't just that she was going to face the Woemaker again. No one had gone inside Wordermund's Mausoleum in millennia, and she had already seen for herself just how incomplete the existing schematics were. She had only ever studied the best guesses for what the emperor's final resting place looked like, and she couldn't wait to see the truth for herself.
However grand the central chamber was, though, the piping was almost mundane. It was smooth and wide enough that Eni's hips didn't touch the sides and her ears only scraped the top if she raised them, and the metal lacked any kind of ornamentation whatsoever. Despite how plain it was, it was made out of the same golden-colored metal as the doors to the mausoleum, which almost seemed to greedily suck the warmth away from Eni's palms and showed no signs of corrosion.
As they kept crawling, Eni's view ahead was dominated by Tsar's tail and legs, but there started to be signs of Astrasa's passage. A massive metal grille with a hinged door set into it was open, a heavy lock reduced to a lump of twisted metal on the floor of the tunnel. Tsar passed it without comment, but Eni took a closer look; it had been melted into slag.
In another spot, a brilliantly metallic strand of fur nearly blended in with the gold-colored pipe, but Eni saw it. They passed more grilles and more ruined locks as they kept going up, but eventually the pipe leveled off in a small chamber with a ladder set into the wall. Eni looked up; where it ended was too high above them to see by the light of their lanterns, but she knew where it led.
Tsar started climbing, but Eni blurted, "What if she's waiting by the hatch?"
She could see it flash before her eyes; she could picture Tsar climbing out into the wonders of the mausoleum and having his head caved in before he had the chance to even see them. His blood would trickle down, burning hot as it splattered against her, and then as the wolf's corpse tumbled aside Eni would catch a glimpse of Astrasa's awful gleaming eyes.
"She won't," Tsar said, and although his voice was low it was full of perfect confidence, "Whatever she's doing is too important."
His eyes took on a curious and almost hungry gleam as he looked down at her, pausing where he was on the ladder. "No time to waste," he said, and then he kept climbing.
Eni paused only a moment before she reached out and grabbed one of the rungs herself. Her paw was trembling and she willed it still, but the higher she got the harder it was to keep her grip. It was as though her body itself was rejecting the decision she had made, and she could feel her nose twitch as she kept following Tsar. The floor had vanished below them, too far away to make out by the light of their lanterns, and the ceiling still wasn't visible. The entire universe had shrunk down to nothing more than her, the wolf, and the ladder, and everything else was darkness.
Eni wasn't sure how long they climbed; it must have only been minutes but it felt like hours. Eventually something finally came into sight above their heads, and Eni nearly sighed with relief at seeing that there was an end. The hatch set into the ceiling looked much the same as the one they had entered the system through, just turned on its side. To Eni it looked as though they both worked in an identical fashion, sliding rather than swinging, and she clung to the ladder desperately as Tsar pushed against it.
The door moved out of place on rails that glided as noiselessly as though they had just been made, and a brilliantly golden light shined through the circular opening that had been revealed. The wolf easily pulled himself through, giving every indication of being perfectly alert, and Eni forced herself to do the same. For a moment, Eni was utterly beyond the capacity to form words as she looked around. She had expected Wordermund's Mausoleum to be grand. She had seen countless illustrations hypothesizing how it might have looked, based on the incomplete architectural drawings and the style of the emperor's favorite villas.
None of them came even close.
The interior of the tomb formed a massive dome that arched gracefully overhead, the ribs that supported the roof twisting together at the top like the inside of a rose. There was an elegance to the design that made every other bit of Imperial architecture look like the clumsy work of a novice student; Eni had never seen anything that managed to look so graceful and yet remained imposing.
The walls themselves were gilded marble, the same black as the exterior of the tomb, but everything looked as though it had just been built. There wasn't even any dust on the floor, which was an enormous map of Aerodan worked in precious metals and gems in exacting detail, down to the changes in elevation. Every bit of land Wordermund had conquered in life was faithfully recorded, the vast reaches of his empire encompassing the world in a way no one had ever done before or since.
Giant statues spiraled around the inner wall, each seeming to depict either Wordermund at different times in his life or perhaps his favored heirs. All were lions, dressed in the same elegant finery, but the facial features of each were ever so slightly different. All of them were the perfect picture of nobility, and so finely carved that if it weren't for their great size and metallic sheen they would have looked almost alive. Each one carried a massive lamp, which made the room so bright it could have almost been midday.
At the center of the chamber, where the map depicted the Circle, was an enormous sarcophagus, looming in a monolithic fashion over the delicately rendered mountains and valleys. It was carved entirely from obsidian, the glassy surface detailed with geometric patterns and symbols that seemed to shift and twist in the light. The emperor's epitaph was engraved in Classical Word, shining gold against the black.
UT CAESAR WORDERMUNDIN CADIT, SIC OMNIS AERODAN
"Pretty words, aren't they?" a voice came suddenly.
For Eni it was like listening to her own echo, but she had never spoken with such a tone of idle amusement. Astrasa stepped out from behind the sarcophagus, once more a perfect physical double of Eni. But then she smiled, and the expression was completely the leopardess's. "Do you know what they mean, little rabbit?" she asked.
The Woemaker's voice was mildly curious, but her posture was completely relaxed. At Eni's side, Tsar seemed to have tensed ever so slightly, his eyes fixed on their opponent. "As Emperor Wordermund falls, so falls the world," Eni replied, and Astrasa waved a paw in an eerily accurate reproduction of how Eni herself might dismiss a point.
"No, no, not that. The line under it," Astrasa said.
"I remain unvanquished," Eni translated, and the leopardess nodded.
"It's a curious choice of phrase, don't you think?" she asked, although she directed the question at Tsar instead of Eni, "Considering he had eleven daggers buried in his chest while he slept, that is. Do you suppose he chose his epitaph before he died, or was it chosen for him?"
"Doesn't matter," Tsar said, and Astrasa shook her head.
"Of course it does," she said, "If it were chosen for him, then those really are nothing more than pretty words as empty as the winter's wind. But if he chose them… Well, perhaps he really is unvanquished."
"Why did you come here?" Eni asked, trying to stand firm, "Why did you cause the Blight in Ctesiphon?"
She almost wished that the leopardess would lunge at them and end her waiting, but the Woemaker seemed more inclined to talk than she did to act. Perhaps she was still looking for an opening, and Eni did her best to do the same. Tsar was as unreadable as ever, his posture loose even as his focus didn't waver. "Figured that out, I see. Tell me, why are cities built along rivers?" Astrasa asked, using the exact same sort of lecturing tone Eni herself took on when she was teaching a class, "Why do trees reach for the sun?"
If the leopardess had been trying to mimic the Archivist, the same way that Eni did, she would have left the questions unanswered. Instead she continued, speaking quite calmly. "Everyone seeks what they need," Astrasa said, "Why do you suppose the Circle lies where it does? The mountains surrounding it aren't the Mother's loving embrace."
She all but leered at Tsar, taking a single step over the miniature replica of those very peaks. "They're a promise," Astrasa purred; the words were still spoken in a perfect copy of Eni's voice but with an oddly throaty quality to them.
The wolf's only outward reaction was in his eyes, which narrowed slightly. "What do your Archons want with me?" he asked, and Astrasa gave him an empty smile that looked out of place on her otherwise flawless duplicate of Eni's face.
"Did you ever go to Karanor?" she asked, gesturing carelessly toward the reproduction of it, "Before I sacked it, that is."
Instead of waiting for an answer, the leopardess continued. "The Caiser only wanted me to bloody their noses, you know. Hit them hard enough to extract concessions. Get the Horns worried enough to do the same. But I had prey between my teeth and… Well, you know what it feels like, don't you? Have you told the rabbit about that, hmm?"
Tsar flinched almost imperceptibly, and Astrasa grinned triumphantly, her arms raised to take in the chamber. "So you did! Did you tell her how it feels to have your enemy's blood on your tongue? Did you tell her what victory tastes like? Our sins make us conquerors."
The Woemaker took a single delicate step forward, looking Tsar up and down. "I wonder what you've become, Slayer," she added.
And with that, she suddenly slid forward, and as she did her form blurred and seemed to dissolve into her natural feline shape. A vicious-looking saber appeared in her paw as she lunged, and Tsar rushed at her, his whip-sword raised.
Eni caught only a glimpse of the two before they were locked in combat, Astrasa's golden fur mostly hidden beneath a plain black top and matching trousers. "Fenris, bring me her head!" the leopardess roared in Jarku, turning to the sarcophagus, and Eni's heart was suddenly in her throat.
She had forgotten about the barghest.
The thought had barely formed in her head before a monstrous beast leaped out from where it had been hiding. Eni's trident rose, seemingly of its own volition, and she stared down the wolf-like creature. The barghest was as large as a horse, but far more muscled, his flanks like slabs of granite. His wedge-shaped head was almost as large as Eni's entire torso, a chin as sharp as an ax leading his charge. Furious red eyes glared at her from a savage face, his gray fur long and bristling. There was no thought in the beast but an overwhelming desire to do as his master had commanded, and Eni rolled to the side as a paw the size of a bucket swatted at her.
It just barely missed, rushing over her head with a sound like a boulder from a catapult, and Eni heard a terrible tearing sound as her satchel was struck. She desperately slipped out of the straps, skidding clumsily as she did. She could hear Astrasa and Tsar, still fighting, but she didn't dare look while the Woemaker's mount was after her.
Fenris's saddle jangled almost musically as he spun around, his massive claws digging into the floor. Eni braced her trident against her shoulder, readying herself for his next attack, but he had too much cunning to impale himself. With a grace that no creature so large should have possessed he broke off his attack at the last moment, hauling himself to a stop as he instead swiped at Eni's legs.
She swept them aside just barely fast enough to avoid losing them entirely, scrambling backwards as Fenris's eyes bored into her own. Her heart felt as though it was beating out of her chest, icy fear seeping down her spine. The barghest was going to kill her, she knew, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Eni's power demanded to come free, and she couldn't have stopped it if she wanted to. The sounds of the wolf and the leopardess fighting faded, as did the horrible panting breath of Fenris. Eni could hear the faint whispering of the air in the chamber, but it was somehow feeble and weak, as though being so far beneath Aerodan's surface had sapped it of its strength.
Eni pulled for it anyway, reaching out greedily for anything that might help. "Please," she begged, "Please!"
The voice of the wind started becoming louder, but Eni couldn't pick out words the way she usually could. She kept crawling backwards, not daring to turn away from Fenris, but all the barghest needed was for her to slip up once. Eni desperately tried to call upon the air to push the beast away, but her power couldn't latch on, her grasp slipping the harder she pulled. Fenris was all but nipping at her feet as she stumbled back, awkwardly using her arms and legs to push, and then it happened.
Eni's elbow sunk into a gap in the floor representing the Indomir Valley, and her progress suddenly stopped.
Fenris took full advantage of it, one massive forelimb swatting her trident aside before she could get it raised and the other pressing against her stomach. All the air was forced instantly from her lungs, and even as Eni frantically reached out for something her power didn't act. She couldn't even gasp for Tsar's help, the only noise she was capable of making a terrible choking wheeze, and she felt Fenris's breath against her face.
His hot drool splattered against her chest and neck, his muzzle opening wide to expose teeth like daggers. His weight was absolutely crushing, and no matter how Eni tried flailing she was completely pinned, only her right paw free. She reached up desperately, straining to reach the barghest's head. Maybe I can put out his eye, Eni thought wildly, and she groped for it.
All her fingers met was the rough fur of the underside of his jaw, Fenris not even seeming to notice her touch, but she didn't give up. Stop! she thought, unable to speak the words, and something incredible happened.
For a moment, she was seeing Fenris's thoughts. They weren't orderly or understandable like Tsar's vision of the past. They weren't even jumbled and chaotic like a dream. They simply were, so primitive as to be beneath words. There was hunger beyond starvation and anger beyond the wildest fury Eni could have ever imagined, coupled with loyalty so powerful it felt as solid as steel. Fenris's world was one of sounds he didn't fully understand and scents that he did, and what little there was of his mind opened before Eni. She could see Astrasa petting his vast head and feel the pleasure it gave him, even as the words she spoke were almost utterly meaningless. They were mostly noise, nothing of much importance besides the orders that the beast understood, and Eni rifled through them urgently before she found one Fenris did know.
The word passed into his mind with all the force Eni could put behind it, and it wasn't simply an order Astrasa had given before. It was every time she had given the command, all at once, and Eni reeled from the effort. The effect was far more dramatic on Fenris; his mind simply stopped. Eni felt their connection sever, and she was suddenly alone in her head, the Barghest dead weight on her chest.
She wasn't sure if she had killed Fenris or just stunned him, but that didn't matter, not when Tsar was still fighting the Woemaker. Eni wriggled to try getting loose herself, managing at least to roll free, but she felt too weak to get to her feet. Her entire body ached terribly, but Eni pushed herself upright, staggering as she looked around for any sign of the combatants.
Eni caught a glimpse of Tsar, circling slowly and warily almost a hundred feet away, but there was no sign of Astrasa. Before she could call to him, all of the lights went out in unison, and the Woemaker's voice spoke. "Why have you come, Slayer?" she asked, "Even the rabbit knows the forgotten are voiceless."
The voice came from everywhere and nowhere; the leopardess could have been right in front of Eni or all the way on the other side of the chamber. "And you, rabbit," Lieren said, her voice suddenly switching back to a copy of Eni's, "You've already lost what you sought, haven't you? You devoted yourself to finding a myth, to search for a hero as you imagined him. The one who wouldn't slaughter and eat villages."
Her laugh filled the chamber even as she kept speaking, rolling and echoing so loud it hurt Eni's ears. "But he never existed," she said, "He's a carnivore, as I am. The savior of the Cradle is nothing more than a fable for the feeble, with no wisdom to impart. Stay his student and he'll leave you with nothing."
The lights in the chamber suddenly came back, as brilliantly as they had been before, and what met Eni's eyes made her jaw drop. Astrasa was standing in the middle of the floor, her clothes torn in spots but without a scratch on her. One arm was raised, her massive gauntlet encasing it. And there, in her grasp, was Eni.
The hare Astrasa was holding must have been nothing more than an illusion, but she squirmed fearfully, her face contorted in panic and pain as she gasped for breath. "Tsar!" the illusion cried, "Save me!"
"She's trying to trick you!" Eni called out to Tsar, but those weren't the words that she heard.
"I'll choke the life from her."
They sounded as though they were coming from Eni's mouth, but they were in Astrasa's voice. It was as though what she had actually said had simply died on her lips, and Eni realized it wasn't only her voice that was wrong. Her arm before her was covered in golden fur, and she appeared to be holding another Eni aloft.
Eni cried out, the sound once more vanishing, and as she stumbled backwards in shock she seemed to simply cease to exist. She couldn't see or hear herself, but the illusion of another Woemaker remained. "Tsar!" Eni called out fruitlessly, but he was looking from one Woemaker to the other.
"Give up," they called in unison, and both hares that they held pleaded desperately.
Then Tsar struck out with his fiery whip-sword, aiming for the Eni closest to him, and the illusions collapsed. Astrasa had covered herself in that copy of Eni, and she only just avoided being cleaved in two. As she dodged, there was once again only one Eni and one Astrasa, but the leopardess looked almost delighted. "How could you tell?" she asked, almost conversationally, "I thought I got everything right."
"You did," Tsar replied as he made another attack, "Too perfect. Didn't change the way a real scent does."
Astrasa laughed, neatly sidestepping the blow and parrying. "Well, then I'll do better next time," she promised as she dodged another vicious swing.
Eni kept her eyes on the two as she recovered her trident from the floor, and then she approached carefully, holding it out. "Enough!" she cried.
She didn't want to give the Woemaker an opportunity to strike her, but Eni thought Tsar needed some kind of help. He had yet to be hit, but Eni vividly remembered how perfectly the pair had been matched when they sparred. Astrasa barely spared Eni a glance as she kept swinging at Tsar with her sword. "If you insist," the leopardess said, and she raised her gauntleted paw, exposing a jewel the size of a sling stone.
The same brilliant light Eni had seen in the tunnel flared to life inside the gem, burning colorlessly like a miniature sun, and—
Eni wasn't sure what happened. Her memory had a sudden gap in it, as though pages had been torn from a book. In one moment she remembered seeing the glowing crystal, and in the next she had slammed against the legs of one of the statues ringing the walls of the mausoleum. She had thought her entire body hurt before, but now she positively throbbed with pain, each breath coming only with great effort.
Tsar looked to have landed somewhat better, but from how he staggered to his feet it didn't seem to have been by much. Astrasa was standing by the sarcophagus, the jewel in her gauntlet glowing so brightly that her body seemed gilded, and she placed her paw against the obsidian. "Wordermund! Old one!" she called, in a great echoing voice, "Come forth and yield to me!"
And then the symbols etched in the emperor's final resting place began to shine.