There was a sound like the end of the world as Wordermund's sarcophagus split apart, and Eni fell to her knees, clamping her paws over her ears. The noise made it feel as though her head had cracked open, and she could feel hot and sticky blood oozing out between her fingers. Her eyeballs felt like grapes being mercilessly squeezed and she gasped with pain, falling over onto her side as she curled up to try to shield herself.
But the din wouldn't end.
The roaring only grew ever louder, expanding to fill the mausoleum as it echoed off the smoothly curved interior of the enormous dome and the equally massive doors, and each reverberation was a hammer blow. Eni's inner ears shrieked with pain as she utterly lost her sense of what was up and what was down; the ground might have been shaking like a ship in a storm but she couldn't tell. The floor seemed to ripple and undulate as her stomach churned, and she would have closed her eyes if it hadn't just made the pressure on them even worse.
She could see the sarcophagus coming apart at the center of the room, its lid opening along a seam that hadn't existed only moments before. Astrasa still had her paws against it, and although her mouth moved Eni couldn't catch any words. Everything had been blotted out except the awful cacophony, and every thought was driven out of Eni's head. She could barely even breathe, the air seeming as thick as tar. Eni desperately glanced over at where Tsar had been, but he was no longer there.
He was forcing his way toward the Woemaker.
The leopardess showed no sign of being affected by what she had wrought, but the wolf was bent over nearly double as though he was walking against a gale. Each step cost him a tremendous amount of effort, his eyes squeezed nearly shut and his muzzle contorted into a grimace. His ears were flat against his skull, trailing streamers of blood that ran down his neck, but his whip-sword was rigidly held in place before him. He was closing the distance slowly but surely even as the chaotic sound grew ever louder.
Eni's vision wavered as her eyes pulsed with the shockwaves, stinging as bloody tears started forming. She desperately wanted nothing more than it all to be over, and if she was screaming she couldn't hear it. The strange symbols etched into the sarcophagus flashed and pulsed, matching the ones in The Lamentations of Nergora, but the observation seemed to come from very far away. Eni felt as though she was being pulled apart, whatever was left of her mind watching with mild interest as her body was pummeled.
And then it all stopped.
Eni thought she might have at last gone completely deaf, which would have been a mercy. Being able to form a thought without it being broken apart by the assault on her ears was a relief beyond measure, as quenching as a canteen to a mammal dying in a desert, and her mind started to pick up speed. It wasn't a matter of no longer being able to hear; the noise had ceased completely. There was no ringing or echoing, as Eni would have expected; there was simply nothing.
The mausoleum was utterly still, the light fading from Wordermund's final resting place, and Astrasa struck it with her gauntlet in apparent frustration. In that moment, as the leopardess's metal-clad fingers beat against the unyielding obsidian, sound seemed to rush back in. The blow made an almost musical chime, but before it could cease Eni heard something else.
Tsar's cloak fluttered as he suddenly dashed forward, racing for the Woemaker with nothing to slow him down. He moved faster than it seemed possible for a mammal, looking like little more than a blur as his arm swung out and he cracked his whip-sword, the blade igniting as it reached hungrily for the leopardess. Astrasa dodged just barely in time, a shower of sparks flying up from where Tsar had hit the sarcophagus, and an instant later he was reeling his weapon back in.
"Won't work," he said.
His voice was somehow both loud and quiet, filling the room while being barely more than a whisper. "He's been dead too long. Not enough of an echo left," Tsar continued, his voice dismissive as he struck out at Astrasa again.
Eni's mouth fell open as she managed with great effort to push herself to her feet, leaning unsteadily against her trident for balance. Suddenly she understood why the Woemaker had come to the mausoleum and why Old Athel had called it blasphemy. "You want his knowledge of Derkomai," Eni said, "That's why you're trying to wake Wordermund, isn't it?"
All of the pieces suddenly fit, but Astrasa looked coldly unconcerned at Eni's realization. "Of course," the leopardess said simply, nimbly avoiding another attempt by Tsar to hit her.
Eni grasped her trident more firmly, taking a deep breath as she tried centering herself. Every single part of her body hurt, but she pushed the pain aside as she cautiously crept forward. Fenris was still on the floor where she had left him, the massive barghest's barrel of a chest barely moving, and Eni ignored him. His master was the only one who mattered, and Eni didn't let her eyes leave the Woemaker while approaching the combatants.
Tsar and Astrasa seemed perfectly matched as they practically danced across the miniature representation of Aerodan, their feet avoiding valleys and mountains, but Eni didn't trust that to last. Astrasa's sword flashed as it caught the light, moving so fast it seemed infinite, and the crack of Tsar's whip-sword reaching out for her filled the air. "Why can't you do better than this?" Astrasa asked suddenly.
She was paying no attention to Eni, her gaze locked onto Tsar's. "I know you saw the sigil I left for you in the cellar," she continued, "Did it rouse nothing in you? Where's the Slayer's famous might?"
Tsar suddenly moved in a way utterly unlike anything Eni had ever seen before. He twisted so fluidly it was as though for a moment his body was utterly boneless, his limbs moving with deadly grace as his whip-sword abruptly reversed and wrapped around Astrasa's blade. Tsar yanked it free with almost contemptuous ease, sending it flying across the room with a metallic clatter while the leopardess stumbled to the floor.
"Don't need it," he said in a low voice, and although his words were even his hackles were raised and his eyes were fierce.
Astrasa looked from Tsar to her lost weapon and back again, and a smile spread across her face. To Eni, it was more disturbing than the leopardess's usual condescending smugness, because it almost looked genuine. "That was very well done," she said, her tone admiring.
Tsar wordlessly motioned with his head for Eni to block the leopardess's path to her sword and she did so, lowering her trident so Astrasa would impale herself if she lunged. "Do you surrender?" Eni asked, trying to make sure her own weapon didn't shake.
She didn't feel as though she had the Woemaker at her mercy, and from how Astrasa's eyes bored into her own she got the feeling it was mutual. "Would you kill me if I did, little rabbit?" Astrasa asked.
She sounded more interested than afraid, as though Eni was nothing more than an amusing puzzle. "Do you have it in you to deliberately take a life?" she asked, nearly purring the words, and Eni stiffened.
Eni had never told anyone about the slavers until Tsar. Not her parents or Aza or even the Archivist, but from the satisfied look that Astrasa gave her Eni suddenly felt sure that the leopardess knew. Eni resisted the urge to look away from those terrible golden eyes, refusing to give her the satisfaction.
"Take off the gauntlet or I'll take off your head," Tsar said, "Slowly."
He didn't specify if his last word meant the threat or the command, but his words were so hard that Eni wouldn't have wanted to be where Astrasa was. There was nothing soft or gentle in his voice, and an almost oppressive aura seemed to bake off him. Astrasa smiled again as she carefully reached over to her gauntleted arm. She turned her arm over with an almost exquisite delicacy, reaching for the first of the heavy straps that kept it together.
And then the lights in the mausoleum went out.
Tsar was as good as his word; his whip-sword lashed out the instant the darkness fell, but it clattered uselessly against the floor. In the small pool of light illuminated by the burning blade, the spot where Astrasa had been was empty. The wolf spat something that sounded like a curse in what had to be his native tongue, his body looming ominously in the rippling shadows his weapon caused. Eni looked around uneasily, straining her ears for any sign of the Woemaker. She could hear her own heart, pounding rapidly in her chest, and the even beating of Tsar's. She could even hear Fenris, his pulse slow and weak, but there was not as much as a trace of Astrasa.
"You recognized what my gauntlet is, then?" the leopardess's voice said, loud and echoing and impossible to pin down.
"A psycryst," Tsar said, his head turning slowly as his ears flitted back and forth.
He had given the unfamiliar word an ominous weight that pierced Eni, but Astrasa chuckled. "Not all of us are born with your impressive gifts," she said, her voice warm and surprisingly friendly.
There was a sudden flash of light as Tsar swung his whip-sword, the blade blazing a path that briefly illuminated Astrasa's eyes before she knocked it away with her gauntlet and disappeared again. Tsar took a step back, flicking his wrist and drawing his weapon back in, and his head never stopped moving. "But…" Astrasa said, and although her voice was loud and echoing Eni could tell it was coming from the far side of the room.
Eni's ears pricked up and she tried casually turning to face the Woemaker, hoping that it would look as though she was still glancing about. "The rabbit was," Astrasa continued, and her voice came from immediately behind Eni.
She didn't have time to react. Before she could even start trying to turn, a crushingly strong arm was around her throat. She coughed out a cry of alarm, reduced to little more than a squeak by the leopardess's cruel grip. Cold metal was against her neck, squeezing so hard that she couldn't breathe. Eni tried sucking in air even as she kicked and punched, but her feet had left the floor and none of her blows connected.
The lights in the mausoleum came back on, and Eni found herself at the center of the room, feeling Astrasa's breath upon her neck. She stared into Wordermund's opened sarcophagus; the lion had apparently been mummified by his airless tomb, his face looking sunken and collapsed even as sandy fur still clung to it. A dagger of gold and some dull silvery metal was clutched between paws that had once been massive but had withered down to twigs, folded over his chest, and Eni forced herself to look away from the terrible sight. Tsar was too far away to be of any help, standing near one of the walls, and Eni flailed desperately. Her vision was going gray at the edges and she had dropped her trident at some point, leaving her utterly defenseless against the Woemaker.
"It's in you too," Astrasa purred in Eni's ear, the words a low whisper.
She felt the leopardess's rough tongue drag against the back of her head as the Woemaker tasted the blood drying there. "So sweet and full of potential. Where did you come from, little rabbit?" she asked, her mouth still right against Eni's ear.
Eni couldn't have answered even if she had wanted to. She pulled desperately at Astrasa's grip before the leopardess used the arm not crushing Eni's throat to grab both her paws and twist them behind her back. "Stand where you are, Slayer," the Woemaker called.
Eni pulled desperately for the power within her, but it was like reliving a nightmare. Just as it had the first time Astrasa held her, her magic wouldn't come. She strained even as she felt her air running out, but nothing happened. "It'd bother you to watch her die, wouldn't it?" the Woemaker drawled, her grip remaining merciless, "Perhaps that was the mistake they made in Idrun. You didn't know a single one of your victims. But the rabbit… Ah, that's a different story."
Tsar was standing utterly still, and although his face seemed nearly expressionless Eni thought she could feel the rage boiling off him. "Have you fucked her yet?" Astrasa asked, and she paused for a moment, "You haven't. So it's still not too late, I suppose."
Eni felt insulted, but the emotion was sluggish and dim, her desperate need for air making everything else meaningless. "You were right," Astrasa said, changing topics abruptly, "Wordermund's echo is too weak for me to call forth. But not for her."
The leopardess gave Eni a shake as though she were a ragdoll, and Eni could feel her limbs flopping. Her arms and legs were far too heavy to consciously move, and her vision was swimming with brightly colored lights at the center even as the edges kept fading out. It was almost beautiful, and everything she heard seemed to come from very far away. There was nothing left in her lungs, but Eni forced herself to speak.
"Won't… Help…" she croaked, the words too quiet to be a whisper.
The metal gauntlet at Eni's neck had been a red-hot and searing pain, like thousands of burning needles being rammed into her skin. After she spoke, though, it suddenly felt colder than a winter's night. She flinched weakly, but she could no more escape the new pain than she could the old. Dazzling light started to fill her eyes, and while Eni distantly supposed that it must be the gauntlet's psycryst she found it difficult to care. She was slipping away, her head too heavy to keep upright. Eni made one last fumbling grab for the power inside her, but it still eluded her reach. Everything was fading, and she could no longer see, the brilliant swirls of color giving way to a void.
And then something seemed to pull her magic.
It was as though a fish hook had caught itself on her soul, and her strength seemed to unravel of its own accord, entirely independent of her. It hurt, in a far-off sort of way, but everything already did. A little more pain didn't make any sort of difference, and Eni drifted away, nothingness claiming her. Even her aches started fading, and she smiled, going limp as the sensation washed over her. She wasn't standing but floating, as though in a vast ocean, and she was utterly alone. She couldn't say how long it lasted; it might have been seconds or it might have been an eternity. As Eni thought that she didn't want to be by herself, she no longer was.
A figure strode out of the void, apparently unconcerned by the complete lack of anything to walk on. He was a tall and handsome wolf Aberrant, and as his graceful steps closed the distance Eni saw he was wearing very familiar attire. The top had a suitably high and regal collar, emphasizing the elegance and bearing of his powerful neck. His well-muscled arms and legs didn't quite strain the fabric, filling the garment out and making his strength obvious. Over it all, a long and sweeping cloak completed the look, neatly hemmed and rippling in a breeze Eni couldn't feel. Upon his face was a gentle smile, warm and inviting, and as he reached out for her with one paw Eni felt at peace.
He was the Slayer, and he was wearing the clothes she had made him.
"Come on, Eni," he said, beckoning her.
His voice was low and rich, and Eni wanted nothing more than to follow the Slayer wherever he would lead her. She reached out, her fingers almost touching his, and—
The Slayer was cleaved suddenly in half.
The wolf split apart as a flaming blade cut him along a diagonal, his fine clothes ripping and catching fire as he was sliced. But there was no substance to him; he was utterly hollow. As he bloodlessly divided he vanished entirely, leaving nothing more than a flaming pile of cloth and a strong smell of burning.
Eni fell to her knees, the world spinning around her, and her thoughts felt impossibly muddled. There was noise filling her ears but nothing registered as she stared at the remains of her vision smoldering on the floor in a miniature recreation of Lake Turgon. Something flew past her head and she blearily looked up, trying to focus, before she was pulled up from the floor. "Eni!" Tsar's voice called, painfully loud, "Stand up!"
She tried, but her legs couldn't support her. She flopped against his shoulder and immediately wished that she hadn't; her throat burned terribly and moving her head even slightly only made it worse. The wolf bent over and grabbed her by the legs, heaving her onto his shoulders. "She put out the damned lights again," he said, twisting back and forth and making her spin.
"Oh," Eni said in a small and croaky voice, "That's why… So dark."
Except for the fiery remnants of the clothes she had made for Tsar, there was absolutely no light in the tomb, and Eni felt vaguely pleased that it wasn't just her eyes. "I need you to focus," Tsar said, but it was difficult to pay attention; Eni felt so tired that she wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, "Did she make you call out?"
"Dunno," Eni muttered, and she wished Tsar would stop talking, "Saw… Slayer. You killed him."
Her voice had an ethereal and disconnected quality that she wasn't sure she liked, but there was nothing that could be done about it. A bone-deep weariness had set over her, and thinking was too much effort. Then the room filled with dazzling light again, the sarcophagus's symbols once more flaring to life, and Eni looked to the mausoleum's center with a mild interest.
This time, it was clear, something was actually happening, and Eni felt her curiosity stir. The symbols etched into the obsidian weren't simply glowing; they seemed to lift up and hang unsupported in the air. More and more broke free of their tethers and filled the air above the sarcophagus, and they began to take a shape. A surge of excitement shot down Eni's spine and her tiredness was all but forgotten as she realized what she was seeing.
The echo taking shape wasn't made out of dust or moonlight or forest debris like the times Old Athel's specter had appeared. The shape of Emperor Wordermund forming was made out of the Derkomai language itself, complex symbols swirling together and forming the noble features of a powerfully fit lion. His body was far more detailed than the dead witch's had ever been, his eyes blazing beneath a noble brow and seeming to light up his tomb.
"Old One!" Astrasa's voice called out from everywhere and nowhere, speaking the Emperor's tongue, "I command you! Yield to me!"
The great and shining figure of the lion seemed to consider the words for a moment, and then he replied in a sepulcher voice that shook Eni to her very core. "Non ducor," he intoned, speaking Classical Word with an accent that Eni found both strange and undeniably noble, "Duco."
That was all.
He fell apart after that, the ribbons of symbols that made up his being collapsing into nothing. A few sparkled out of existence like fireflies on a summer night, glowing coldly before being snuffed out. Then the mausoleum was utterly dark and completely still once more. Eni looked around as best she could by only moving her eyes as to avoid the still throbbing pain in her neck, but she couldn't see anything. She strained her ears, listening carefully, but there was nothing beyond her and Tsar. "Don't hear her," Eni croaked at last, "Or the barghest. Must be an illusion again."
"I don't think so," Tsar said quietly, igniting his whip-sword and piercing the gloom, "She left."
The hatch in the floor where they had entered from was still closed, but it looked as though it had been fused shut. The metal had an oddly lumpy appearance around its edges, and Eni didn't doubt that the Woemaker had fled. "Go after her," Eni urged, "You can catch her."
"There are miles of tunnels under the city," he said, shaking his head, "And there's still a rajah somewhere in them. Now that Lieren failed…"
He paused, and Eni wished she could see his face from where she was on his shoulders. It was very strange to hear him use the Woemaker's given name, and it almost didn't seem to quite fit the leopardess. "She'll make it harder to follow," he finished simply.
Eni couldn't disagree with his assessment, although she had to wonder how different it would be if she was still capable of walking. "How do you feel?" Tsar asked abruptly, and she resisted the urge to laugh.
She was sure she looked terrible; her fur felt tacky from where her eyes, nose, and ears had all bled, to say nothing of the dozens of small cuts all over her body. Her throat felt as though it had been sanded, and from the pain in her arms and legs she was sure she had a spectacular set of bruises. "Been better," Eni managed, and she could feel Tsar nod his head against her stomach.
"What did the echo say?" Tsar asked as he started walking in the direction of a small lump near one wall.
"I am not led. I lead," Eni translated, and as they got closer Eni saw that it was her own satchel that Tsar was approaching.
It was ripped where Fenris's claws had touched it, and although the garment she had made Tsar was gone it looked otherwise intact. He gingerly picked it up, holding it carefully so nothing spilled. "I can fix it," Eni said, "Let me down."
He didn't argue, but he delicately lowered Eni to the floor. She needed the wall and Tsar to help stand up, but Eni managed it, digging through her ruined bag for her sewing kit. "What's a psycryst?" Eni asked as she pulled out a needle and tried threading it.
Her paws were shaking so badly that Tsar had to grab them and help her do it, her fingers stiff and clumsy. "It's a sort of tool," Tsar said after a moment's consideration, his eyes on Eni as she stitched her bag back together, "A way for a mage to bind their power to an object. It's like…"
He paused again, seeming to choose his words carefully. "It's like firewood. You need an ax to cut up a tree, but once it's cut anyone can burn it," Tsar said.
"So Astrasa is using another mage's power, then. She didn't make hers?" Eni asked, remembering how the Woemaker had claimed to lack Tsar's gifts.
"No," he said, "A much more powerful mage did. I've only ever seen one before."
His eyes took on a distant look, as though he was remembering something painful, and then he continued. "They don't have to be gems, though. A mage with enough power could bind it to anything."
"Like a language, you mean?" Eni asked, a stab of dread filling her.
She suddenly thought she understood what made Derkomai special, and Tsar looked impressed. "Yes," he said, "It'd take power beyond power to do it. But it's possible."
Eni finished the last stitch in her bag and bit off the end of the string; it wasn't particularly pretty but it would hold. "Then we need to find Astrasa and stop her from figuring out another way to learn the language of magic," she said, and carefully slung her satchel onto her back, "Let's get out of here before we run out of air."
She laughed bitterly, ignoring the pain that it caused her tortured throat. "None of this mattered, did it?" she asked, "Astrasa didn't have the strength to summon Wordermund's echo alone. We could have just sealed the tunnel and waited for her to suffocate."
Eni gestured at the hatch set in the floor, which was still fused shut, but Tsar wasn't paying any attention to it. "We learned more than we knew," he said quietly, and Eni felt suddenly ashamed of herself for not considering that, "And it wouldn't have worked. She could have gotten out the same way we will."
Eni looked up, following Tsar's gaze; he wasn't looking at the trapdoor.
He was considering the opposite wall of the mausoleum and the massive doors set into it, lit by the smoldering pile of fabric that had been the garment Eni had made him.