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Chapter 37: Stormroar

"Out the doors?" Eni blurted, staring at Tsar.

She had never heard him deliberately make a joke, but what he was suggesting was so ridiculous that she nevertheless found herself searching his face for any hint of humor. There was nothing, though, his expression utterly serious as he nodded absently and began walking. His eyes were red and his mane streaked with blood where it had dripped from his ears, but he looked otherwise untouched from his encounter with the Woemaker.

Eni wished she could say the same for herself as she limped after the wolf; her throat was painfully raw and her chest throbbed with every breath, but it was nothing compared to her ears. The floor seemed to sway and shift beneath her, her balance completely off, and Eni had to lean on her trident like a walking stick just to stay upright. The tomb had been so silent and still when they had first entered it, but that silence was gone, replaced with a faint and irritating high-pitched ringing that felt as though it was coming from within Eni's head.

"We'll be seen," Eni said, when as he passed the hatch it became abundantly clear that the wolf really was planning on using the two massive doors leading to the outside, "There are always pilgrims around the mausoleum, and— and guards and—"

Eni fell silent as Tsar glanced over his shoulder at her. "Then we'll be seen," he said quietly, his tone somewhere between dismissive and thoughtful.

Eni nodded reluctantly, although she immediately wished that she hadn't; the pit of her stomach felt as though it had fallen out. She took a deep steadying breath, holding still until the ground no longer felt like it was lurching violently, and then said, "We should still wear the masks."

Tsar regarded her for a moment. "Threw mine away," he said at last, sounding almost abashed, and as he spoke Eni remembered how he had carelessly cast it aside in the tunnels under the mausoleum.

"You can use the one I borrowed," she said, rummaging through her satchel, "I've got my own."

The mask she had gotten at the gate to Ghabarahata hadn't survived quite intact; a thin crack ran nearly the entire length of it, starting under one eye hole and running a jagged path down to the jaw. The pale wood under the dark paint was exposed in a narrow strip, but the mask itself was solid enough as Eni offered it to Tsar. He wordlessly put it on, although it fit rather poorly, and regarded the doors carefully.

Eni leaned against the wall nearest one of the doors gratefully, appreciating how solid the tomb felt, and watched as Tsar spread his fingers wide and gently caressed the golden metal. From the inside, the doors looked much as they did from the outside; they were elaborately engraved with scenes of Wordermund's greatest triumphs, and there was no lock of any sort. Then again, Eni supposed she understood why, as with the mausoleum in a vacuum even an incredibly strong mammal wouldn't have been able to budge them with the atmosphere itself pushing them closed.

Tsar ran his claws across the door, making a faint whispering sound Eni could barely hear over the steady ringing in her ears, and then nodded to himself. He shifted his weight, planting his feet firmly, and cocked back one arm.

His fist was a blur as it shot forward, and there was a deep and rich musical sound like an enormous bell being rung as the doors swung open. They moved slowly on their articulated hinges, gliding smoothly as they parted. Eni had only a moment to gape at the incredible thickness of each door before they were out of sight, replaced by a view of the plaza surrounding the mausoleum.

There was a great and heavy sound that rattled Eni's teeth as the doors reached the end of their travel, and Tsar was already standing in the massive entryway. His cloak fluttered around him as the wind whispered its way in, his face hidden behind his cracked mask. Tsar raised his hood over his head and gestured for Eni to follow before striding forward.

The result was immediate.

Perhaps four or five dozen mammals were arrayed before the grand entrance that had not opened since being sealed thousands of years ago, prostrate on their knees as they bowed low. A murmur seemed to pass among them, indistinguishable in their identical black robes and featureless masks, and they reached out. "Emperor Wordermund!" someone close to the doorway called, her voice high with wonder, "You've returned!"

"No!" cried another voice breathlessly, "It's the Slayer!"

More voices cried out, raw with emotion and overlapping so thoroughly that Eni could barely make out the words, but she heard the Slayer's title again and again. Tsar ignored them as he walked forward, his gaze straight ahead as the crowd parted around him as though he was a ship cutting through the waves. Eni hurried after him, the crowd not seeming to see her. With their faces hidden behind masks and their heads reverently low they looked utterly worshipful, and Eni couldn't blame them.

Tsar cut an impressive figure as he strode along, his tattered cloak for once not looking merely threadbare but instead giving him the impression of nearly fathomless age. When it billowed around his slender frame he seemed far larger and stronger, as though he was made of nothing but muscle. His back was straight and proud, and the whip-sword wrapped around his waist gleamed where the glow of lanterns caught it. The flickering and uneven quality of the light made the wolf ripple in and out of the shadows, undeniably real one second and completely illusory the next. He was like no mortal, and as paws reached out and mammals cried for his blessing Eni felt awed beyond measure.

She thought she understood what Tsar must have been met with every time he revealed himself during the Scourge. The fervor that followed him as his legend grew with each monster he slayed must have only gotten stronger and stronger, until he was no longer seen as just a wolf.

He was a god.

Eni shivered, and it wasn't just what she saw. After the warmth of the tunnels under Ghabarahata and the tomb, the air felt impossibly frigid, and when another gust of wind blew through the plaza it bit like an icicle pressed through her fur against her skin. Eni heard a low rumbling that vibrated all the way down to her toes coming from behind her, and when she glanced back at the mausoleum she gasped.

The night sky overhead before them was clear, a few stars and the moon visible where the brightness of the city didn't drown them out. Behind her, however, it was as dark as ink. Ominously roiling clouds surged across the horizon, as though the sky itself was being devoured, with a menacing quality unlike anything Eni had ever seen. When bolts of lightning split the storm, the light barely seemed to travel at all, swallowed by greasy darkness nearly instantly.

When Eni looked ahead again, to where the night sky still appeared as it should, her sense of unease only deepened. She was about to speak to Tsar when another voice called out, clear and firm rather than low and muttering like the pilgrims bowing to Tsar.

"Stop and show us your papers!" a richly masculine voice cried, coming from the head of a group of guards Eni hadn't seen approaching.

It was impossible to tell his species under his concealing cloak and mask, but his words had the slightly resonant rasp that Eni always associated with a feline. His chest was crossed with the distinctive sash that marked him as one of the Wardens of Wordermund, and the sentry wore it proudly. He was taller than Tsar and somewhat bulkier, holding his spear in a manner that almost looked casual. Eni caught a glimpse of the guard's eyes flashing behind his mask, which was crossed by the insignia of a first lieutenant, and she thought she saw a tinge of fear his voice didn't betray.

There were eight sentries in all, arrayed in a wedge with the lieutenant at the tip, and they had planted themselves to block the path forward. Tsar did the first part of what the guard had ordered, stopping so smoothly that were it not for the motion of his cloak in the icy wind he might have looked like a carving. Despite his easy compliance, however, Eni could see the soldiers stiffen, their weapons held at the ready, and she couldn't blame them. The mammals who had thrown themselves prone on the ground had lifted their heads, their eyes catching and reflecting the light of lanterns as they watched. Their low muttering was snatched away from their mouths by sudden gusts, but Eni knew what they wanted.

The pilgrims wanted to see Tsar prove himself.

The wolf remained silent, his face turned wordlessly toward the lieutenant. "What business did you have in the mausoleum?" one of the other soldiers blurted suddenly, "You're not… You're not the Slayer, are you?"

"That's enough, corporal," the lieutenant said, his voice carrying a note of warning, and Eni saw him subtly glance about and take in the assembled mammals and their continued interest.

He, at least, seemed to know how quickly a crowd could become a riot, and when he spoke again his tone was soothing. "Do you understand me?" the sentry asked, and then he switched to speaking Classical Word, "Can you identify yourself, friend?"

The air itself had become tense and sharp even as the temperature fell, each breath stinging Eni's nose. Tsar didn't speak for a long moment, apparently unaware of every eye on him, but when he did it sounded like an absolute non sequitur. "The weather's going to get worse," he said in a low voice.

The lieutenant didn't even have time to respond before Eni was driven to her knees by an explosion of sound and light.

She gave an anguished cry as her ears were assaulted yet again, throwing her paws protectively over her head, and for an instant the entire world was washed out. In that moment, the plaza ahead had suddenly been as bright as noon, the colors perfectly sharp and every brick in every wall completely clear. Then the light vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, accompanied by that terrible sound that drove every thought from Eni's head.

When she managed to force herself to look up, chunks of black marble the size of her fists were raining from the sky, bouncing off the ground and splitting into smaller pieces. Mammals were screaming in terror and running away or milling about, only the soldiers and Tsar standing firm, and as she watched Tsar's tail swatted away a stone before it could hit her in the head.

Eni turned around in a daze, and what she saw made her eyes go wide. There was a smoldering crater in the dome that topped the mausoleum, a crater so large that a house could have comfortably fit inside it. At the deepest point, Eni could see the dull gleam of metal where the air-tight lining of the mausoleum had been exposed by a lightning strike that had destroyed a dozen feet of marble with the force of a hundred brimstone batteries.

Pebbles and grit kept falling, larger pieces cracking the plaza's tile as they struck, and then it started pouring rain. "Mother's milk!" the corporal swore, as he looked from Tsar to the mausoleum and back again, "What—"

"A rajah's been digging tunnels under your city," Tsar interrupted, "A rat king. Find out why. Kill it."

"Who are you?" the lieutenant demanded, "How do you—"

"Save us, Sir Slayer!" one of the pilgrims who hadn't run shrieked, throwing himself at Tsar, "Please, make it stop!"

The mammal lunged forward, trying to embrace Tsar with both paws outstretched, but the wolf twisted faster than the eye could see and caught him in a headlock with contemptuous ease. "Before it gets away," Tsar said, continuing to speak to the lieutenant as though they hadn't been interrupted.

The citizen caught in the wolf's arms was sniveling behind his mask, his entire body trembling with mindless fear, and Tsar pushed him forward into the arms of some of the soldiers. The mammal collapsed, apparently too overcome to speak. "Or worse will come," Tsar said, and as if to punctuate his words the rain started to come down harder.

It was a furious deluge, like the entire ocean was being dumped on them, and Eni could barely stand upright as the cold water leached the warmth from her bones. The rain came down so hard that even when flashes of lightning crossed the sky she could barely see in front of her, everything reduced to a dismal blur. "Listen to him," Eni urged as she found her voice, "He's—"

There was a sudden burst of lightning and simultaneous clap of thunder before she could finish, so loud that it made the first seem insignificant. Eni could feel the throbbing pressure of its shockwave pounding mercilessly at her ears, and her cry of pain was lost to the horrible cracking sound of stone coming apart. The ground itself trembled, shaking like a leaf in a gale, and all the sentries took a step back. When Eni managed to chance a glance over her shoulder, she saw that the plaza in front of the mausoleum had simply collapsed, opening up a yawning and inky chasm into the tunnels that weaved their way under the city. The hole was impossibly wide and long, as though a giant had taken a massive scoop out of Ghabarahata, and its depths were utterly black and fathomless in the downpour. But even as water flooded in, it was clear that the sewers were not empty.

Swarms of rats were fleeing the enormous crack, more than Eni had ever seen in one place. There were hundreds of them, sleek and dark and grotesquely large, squealing and chattering as they climbed and ran.

"By the Mother," the lieutenant whispered, his voice trembling, and then he spoke louder for the benefit of his soldiers, "Fall in!"

He raised one arm and spun his fist as he set off, going around Tsar, and without hesitation the others followed him, half-marching and half-jogging in the direction of the mausoleum. The pilgrim who had tried beseeching the wolf directly was left alone and dazed for a moment before he scurried away, apparently unable to rise to his feet.

"Should we…" Eni began, watching as the soldiers engaged the vermin and furiously hacked away.

Their weapons seemed to make no difference; no matter how many they chopped apart, the rodent swarm was utterly undiminished as the rain instantly washed away the blood and ichor. "Should we help?" she finished.

"You can't," Tsar said simply, but the words hurt as though he had struck her, "Come on."

Without waiting for an answer, he scooped her up as easily as though she had been a kit, supporting her legs behind her knees with one arm and wrapping the other around her shoulders. Even though the plaza had started flooding with frigid water, running down into the new pit like an enormous drain, the wolf was utterly sure-footed on the slick marble tiles as he took off in a sprint.

"I'm sorry," Eni said, glancing up at him and wishing he wasn't wearing a mask.

The impassive wooden features gave nothing away, and with the rain even his eyes weren't visible. She thought she knew how he felt, though. "I'm slowing you down," she said, and he didn't deny it.

The wolf just kept running, seeming almost to pick turns at random, and Eni caught glimpses of the chaos the storm was causing. Some of the buildings they passed had holes in their roofs where they hadn't been up to the incredible force of the rain. Lower-lying streets had completely filled with murky water, and every now and then the air was heavy with smoke where lightning had caused a fire.

Almost no one else was out and about, the citizens of Ghabarahata apparently knowing better than to go outside while the elements raged against their city, and the few that were paid them no mind. Soldiers dashed about in formation, their leaders barking orders about sweeping through districts or organizing bucket brigades, but Eni let the sounds just wash over her.

Her ears still throbbed with pain, the ringing in them so loud that everything else was almost dreamlike but not so loud that she could forget about her other aches and pains. She wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, and she felt ashamed as she watched everything unfold around her. Tsar was utterly silent as he ran, moving so quickly that it must have only been minutes before he reached the wall that surrounded the city.

Rather than heading for a gate, though, he set his course for a massive gap where a portion of the wall had simply collapsed. It was an unsettling sight, seeing the seemingly invulnerable bulk of ancient stone ruptured, and there was a mountain of debris where blocks larger than Eni herself had slid apart. The air smelled like lightning and some of the stone was scorched black, little guttering fires eating away at anything that burned even as the rain tried to quench them.

An entire brigade of the City Guard was desperately at work, trying to set up an elaborate block and tackle system in stubborn defiance of the weather. Their captain bellowed for Tsar to stop, but he ignored the command as he pressed forward. The wolf bounded up the ruins as though they were stairs, leaping from one massive block to the next with unnatural ease. He was no less graceful once they were through the wall, nimbly sliding down a sloping pile of rubble until he was back on solid ground.

As he kept running, though, the weather simply stopped.

In one instant, Eni was completely numb to anything but the feel of the torrential rain soaking her through. The next, it was gone, leaving her chilled and sodden but back in dry air once more. She blinked water out of her eyes as she spun her head, and what she saw looked utterly unbelievable.

Ghabarahata itself was still falling victim to the deluge, with sinister black clouds churning and crackling over the highest peaks of the city's graceful spires and domes. But only a few dozen feet out from the city's walls, the night was as it had been. It was brisk but not cold, and the sky was clear and cloudless. Eni had never seen weather so impossibly localized; she could actually see where the division between the sluggishly widening storm and the surrounding calm was.

Only Ghabarahata was suffering.

"It's Theonecrosis, isn't it?" Eni asked, her teeth chattering.

Her robes were soaked through, clinging to her uncomfortably, and her fingers were so frozen and clumsy that she couldn't undo the ties keeping her mask on. "It's because of what happened in the tomb," she continued, and rather than answer Tsar gently set her back on her feet.

"Yes," he said; his mask was already off, and Eni felt a stab of envy as she kept fumbling with hers.

"Here," Tsar added.

He reached out and pulled off her mask with one paw as he ripped her robes open with the other, the sodden fabric falling heavily to the ground. Eni's regular clothes underneath weren't exactly dry, but she felt instantly warmer as she tucked her paws into her armpits to conserve her body's heat. "Thanks," she managed, shivering again.

"Try walking," Tsar advised, and he set a slow pace that Eni did her best to keep up with, her entire body still weak and shaking.

"Is— is it going to be like Ctesiphon?" Eni asked after a moment.

Tsar had led them back onto the highway, heading in the direction of Terregor, but he glanced thoughtfully back at Ghabarahata. "No," he said at last, "Less magic. It'll pass."

Eni wasn't sure whether or not that was a relief. Even with the city to their backs, the rain and thunder was a constant din, the storm still raging. "I don't understand," she admitted as she hobbled after Tsar, "It's just… You know magic. The Woemaker does, too. And I… It doesn't make any sense, no matter how hard I try. I just want to get it. I want to…"

Eni paused, and when she continued she was speaking faster, the words tumbling out of her mouth. "That's my fault," she said, gesturing back toward the city, "Astrasa could pull on my magic because I'm not good enough. I… I can't even stand up, the way that you can, no matter how loud it gets. I don't want to fall over clutching at my ears ever again. I don't want to make anyone else suffer. I just want to be able to do something."

She kicked at the ground, hoping he understood what she meant, but he gave no sign. For several minutes the wolf didn't answer, continuing to walk down the smooth road. He was just as soaked as Eni, but it didn't seem to bother him in the slightest; if he could feel the chill of his sopping clothes there was no change in how he walked. Even with his mane plastered to his head and neck he had a certain dignity and strength about him that his shabby clothes couldn't diminish, and at last he looked to her.

"When Lieren was trying to fool me," Tsar said, "She was filling the air with your scent. With…"

He paused, seeming to grope for the right word. "She made it as powerful as she could," he said, "So strong even you could smell it."

Eni nodded slowly, unsure of the point he was trying to make. "It wasn't just that," Tsar continued, "What my nose was telling me in the tomb. Everything was… rich."

He fell quiet again, his eyes taking on a faraway look. "That's how I sense magic. Smell," he said, "For Lieren, I think it's taste."

Eni recalled how the leopardess had lapped up her blood and repressed a shiver. "For you, it's hearing," Tsar finished.

"Can you train me to control my hearing?" Eni asked, "So that sounds don't overwhelm me?"

Tsar's expression shifted ever so slightly. "I… owe you an apology," he said, "I'm not a very good teacher. You're much better than I am."

"Oh," Eni said, fumbling for word, "That's… Well, you've never had a student before, right?"

He nodded almost guiltily, and Eni found herself smiling for the first time since they had entered the mausoleum. "I can try teaching you that, too," she said, "Not just reading."

"You can?" Tsar asked, and Eni felt her smile growing larger at the surprised wonder she heard in his voice.

She suddenly remembered her first attempt at teaching, when she had still been a student in the university, and how the Archivist had gently helped guide her. "Everyone learns differently," she said, repeating the same words her mentor had told her, "You just need to find what works for them."

Rather than answer with words, Tsar came to a sudden stop and held out his right arm in an odd fashion. It was bent at the elbow, his fingers splayed out and facing the sky, and for an instant Eni just stared at him. She had never seen the gesture before and it meant nothing to her; it didn't quite look like he wanted to shake but he certainly wasn't trying to embrace her, either. The wolf's head cocked to the side, and without moving his right arm he delicately grabbed hers with his left. "Like this," he said, maneuvering her paw until her fingers were intertwined with his and then squeezing.

His grip was firm but not overly so, and he locked eyes with her. "Ai-daek en ya'alf hu ya'daek," he said, the words utterly alien to Eni's ears but completely solemn.

He stood there a moment, his face utterly sincere as he gazed into hers, and then he let go. "An Elrim taught me that," he said quietly, "It's how they make promises."

From the way he said the word, Eni wondered who his teacher had been; he almost sounded reverent. "I'll think of ways to help you train your hearing for the next time we stop," he said, "But we have a long way to go."

He gestured vaguely toward the horizon, where nothing was visible but the rolling greenery of the Circle, and Eni nodded. "We're going to Terregor, then?" she asked.

Tsar made a sound of acknowledgement as he started walking again. "This library of yours," he said, "That letter your boss wrote. The Archons may be trying to find what they need there. Maybe more urgently after Lieren failed here."

Eni would have liked it if she could have said that Tsar was just being paranoid, but it seemed terribly possible that the wolf was right. The odd message that the Archivist had written to her, with its strangely circumspect reference to a new Chief Bureaucrat, felt more ominous than it had when she had first read it. "They'll keep trying to translate the Lamentations," Eni said, "Won't they?"

Tsar nodded. "And if they succeed…" Eni began, and she glanced over her shoulder at the receding shape of Ghabarahata.

Storm clouds swirled above the city, growing fatter as they pulled in every drop of moisture from the surrounding air. Ghabarahata's menacing veil grumbled with thunder, shot through with lightning that refracted through hailstones like the flash of a spider's eyes in torchlight. She wondered if Aerodan itself could survive the Theonecrosis their unchecked magic could unleash, and she tried desperately to force that thought from her head.

"They won't," Tsar said, his voice calmly assured, and Eni let his certainty wash over her.

Although she was still tired and battered, every muscle aching and her head itself throbbing, Eni knew that she would never give up.

And neither would he.

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It was great to reread the 1st volume. To think this would be my very first anthro fantasy story I read. Now to the 2nd volume.

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