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Chapter 39: The Lone Self

I could have stopped him.

I keep coming back to that thought, no matter what I do or how long it's been. I've lost track, my journal overflowing until the pages were filled, each entry pared down to the bare minimum. There's only so many ways to write failure, and I've done them all.

Rumors of the Slayer in Lagadha were unfounded.

Sightings of an Aberrant wolf in Diorist were just a local recluse.

The monster reported slain outside of Eirden was nothing but a drunkard's tale.

But no matter how many words I write, no matter how cramped and cold my fingers get, it's the same. I had my chance on the river to stop Tsar and I didn't. I failed. There's nothing magical about the bitter taste of defeat that haunts me. I know what it is; disappointment was my constant companion for years before I found the Slayer for the first time. And when he jumped out of the ferry's window, shards of glass still spinning away with an almighty crash from where his whip-sword struck, all I had to do was reach out.

I could have grabbed him.

The power building in me wasn't too much. I know that now, when's it become so much worse. I haven't been able to enter so much as a village for so long I can barely remember what one looks like. It's been an eternity since I felt the warmth of a fire; it's much too dangerous now for me to light one. The whispering of the flames is always there if I do, just at the edge of my hearing and urging me to let go. To let my power loose and burn everything down.

I don't trust myself anymore.

All I have are the blankets and rags I've scavenged, wrapped around my body like a funeral shroud. But every morning I still wake up, even though the sun itself seems to have lost its luster. It's nothing more than a dim ember in the sky these days, giving off light without so much as an ounce of heat. I lost everything, that day on the ferry, when I hesitated just an instant too long.

Tsar's eyes torment me, even now. I see them as sharply as I did in the moment, the disappointment and hurt etched into his features somehow crystallized in his eyes. It was the truth of him I was seeing even as I let my magic pull free and my senses dissolved into nothingness. I should have pushed through; I should have grabbed a hold of his paw and apologized.

I didn't.

The last thing I saw, before the world was just a riot of color and sound too vivid to make any sense of, was him drawing and swinging his whip-sword. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, an impossible ribbon cutting through the air toward the window with all the grace of a dancer. For an instant, I thought I knew what Nidhogg must have been like.

I didn't see him jump out the window myself. It took me weeks to reconstruct what happened, each day passing with torturous slowness. So much time wasted, and all of it my fault. I awoke in a hospital in Terregor, five days after Tsar's departure, to a room full of mammals who thought I had gone mad with a fever. I have only the vaguest inkling of my dreams; I was hacking through a jungle, I think, with vines pushing past my head and shoulders as though they were trying to grab me. But it all dissolved when I woke, the cold compress on my forehead like a block of ice.

I must have sounded insane when I realized Tsar wasn't there and called for him. The doctors thought I was relapsing into delirium, and I don't blame them. They forced something down my throat, something cool and unpleasantly astringent, and I was out again, the little hospital room a dreary haze until at last the Archivist arrived. But it wasn't my Archivist. It wasn't the wise old markhor who had been my mentor, who I think knew the truth of my obsession with the Slayer even without ever being told. I lost him, the same way I lost Tsar. It was Arctus's replacement who came to that cell of a room, stopping by only to dismiss me.

”We no longer require your service, Miss Siverets,” I was told, and that was all.

I didn't need an explanation; my search had made me an embarrassing liability. It wasn't just the university, either. I was frantic, as I was turned out on the street, desperate to figure out where Tsar had gone. I wrote Aza a letter, begging for help, and when no reply came I wrote a dozen more.

He ignored each one.

I retraced the ferry's route to the docks outside Ghabarahata as winter set in. I found and interviewed the mammals who had brought me to the hospital after it seemed as though I had suffered an attack of some sort on the boat. I soaked in every scrap of information I could find as the snow began falling, moving as fast as I could before even the simplest of journeys became a slog.

None of it helped. I sold my apartment and every single book in my personal collection, desperate for the money I needed to continue my search for Tsar alone. I scoured Terregor for any trace of him, coins flowing through my fingers like icy water as I did everything in my power. But no matter who I asked, no matter how I tried to find witnesses, it was as though the wolf had vanished into the Nazdya River, never to be seen again.

I expanded my search, first to the rest of the Circle and then beyond, but it was no use. Rongen promised to let me know if Tsar ever returned to his tower, but his last letter was a very, very long time ago. Perhaps I could have tried visiting him, tried begging for help instead of giving up as he suggested. But I can't risk it.

I burned down an inn on accident, my power reaching out for the hearth as I slept. And as I stood in the snow outside, the chilly winds ripping at my ears, I knew I couldn't take the chance again. Not with anyone else's life. The flames licking up the timber frames didn't seem to warm me at all, and I staggered away, leaving civilization behind. At first I could still manage, during the day, to go into cities and continue my search.

Those days are gone now.

I've become a menace, wandering alone. I've searched every lead I can think of, except for one. I don't know how long it's been, looking for other threads. I don't know what she'll do when she sees me, but I'm down to my very last shot. There's only one mammal who can possibly help anymore, but the idea feels like hanging onto a fraying rope over a pit of spikes. There's no hope to the idea, no light, nothing but frigid resolve.

What will the Woemaker do?

It feels like I've been trudging across the Cradle for an eternity, leaving behind what I know for Carnaron and the savage leopardess. Maybe their border patrols will find me before I make it. And even if I do reach New Rushaya, I don't know what I'll do next. Planning further seems utterly futile, so I haven't bothered. There's only the wasteland ahead of me, an endless plain all covered in snow. My footsteps vanish behind me, and all that lies ahead is frosty whiteness, without so much as a tree to break up the featureless expanse. Maybe it's been a week since I set out on my last desperate chance. Maybe a month. The days all run together with nothing to mark them. The battered satchel on my back gets emptier as I eat what's left of my food, but it feels like it's getting heavier. Every step is getting more and more difficult, and when I look back the jagged rocks lurking under the snow are streaked red with my blood.

I can't feel my feet anymore.

My legs are as numb as my ears to the piercing wind blowing against my face, my eyes squinted almost completely closed. My heart is heavy in my chest as I press on, slowing to a sluggish crawl. And then I'm crawling too, no longer able to walk. The snow is thick and slushy, soaking through what's left of my clothes, the air so cold it's hard to breathe.

A blank infinity stretches out before me and still I plod on, my fingers twisted into claws as I pull with what's left of my strength. Another eternity passes in the space of an hour, and then suddenly there is something ahead, dark against the perfect whiteness. I drag myself along as fast as I can, inching my way forward until I'm close enough to see. There's a bloody footprint in the snow, one in a series stretching forward.

It's my own.

I've somehow started going in a circle, and I weep tears that instantly freeze against my face. I fall to the ground, no longer able to keep my head upright. There's no point. There's nothing more to be done. I've failed for the last time, and as the sun begins to set I don't have the strength to keep moving.

The light around me is dimming, the snow against my head getting harder to see. The glacial cold gnaws at my very bones, seeping through my fur and skin. My power, my one awful companion through so many fruitless years, is finally silent. There are no more whispers. There's no tug or pull. There's no warmth.

The trail is cold.

I know it always will be, and my eyes close. “Eni,” I hear, the voice a ghost from the past.

Just an echo, and nothing more. “Eni,” it calls again, but I don't stir.

My failures are tormenting me. I remember how he said my name, so long ago, and it's all I hear. Everything else has gone still and black.

“Open your eyes!”

I never heard Tsar say that.

Something flickers in my belly. In my heart. Something it's been so long since I felt that I barely know what it is. “Eni!” Tsar calls.

And he's there.

Tsar's whip-sword is blazing like a forge, heat baking off of him so strongly that the snow under my body starts melting. His eyes are impossibly blue, flickering in the light of his weapon, and there's nothing else. No stars in the sky or trees in the ground, just an endless void for the two of us. His tattered cloak is utterly still, with not so much as a breeze to move it, and there’s no sound. “I'm here,” he says, reaching down, and I come back to—

—Eni was herself again.

She was clinging to Tsar, completely soaked in chilly water, and her grip felt so feeble that she could barely manage to hold on. Eni looked blearily around, her head feeling stuffed with cotton, and her eyes widened.

They were in the Nazdya River, making steady progress toward one of the banks, and behind them was what was left of the Magnificent Grace. Parts of the ferry had been sheared away, massive chunks simply missing from the sides. The boat had a severe list, the other end rising as the nearest one flooded. Mammals who looked as wet as Eni felt huddled on either side of the shore, gaping at the ruins and the debris floating in the river. Trunks and crates and splintered planks were sweeping toward Terregor, but there was something in the water that Eni didn't recognize.

It was enormous, nearly a third the size of what remained of the ferry, and just looking at it made her skin crawl. It was a disgustingly misshapen pale green mass, glistening with a faint phosphorescence where it wasn't illuminated by torches and emergency flares. The shape was organized into massive rings, all of them filled with confusing growths of the darkest black Eni had ever seen, like the gills of an impossibly large mushroom.

Eni tried to ask what had happened, but she only coughed, her stomach churning as she spat out something slimy and bitter instead. It was horribly long and root-like, an unsettlingly organic central tube with a number of wavering protrusions streaked brilliantly red with her blood.

Eni coughed again, her mouth full of the awful taste and her throat feeling completely raw, and she looked up at Tsar's face. “What—” she managed, but she didn't get any further, overcome by another fit that brought up another chunk.

“Monster attacked the ferry,” he said quietly, even as he kept swimming.

He was remarkably graceful in the water, completely unburdened by how Eni clung to him. “You don't remember that,” he said, and it wasn't a question.

Eni frowned, trying to cast back her mind. Her thoughts were a muddled mess, as though she had just woken from a terrible dream, and she was gripped with a sudden and awful fear. Dying alone in the far reaches of Carnaron had felt so vivid, so unshakably real, that she felt what she was seeing had to be the illusion. Eni pulled as hard as she could against Tsar's neck, desperately seeking his warmth, and felt her eyes filling with tears. “Is— Is—” she stammered, barely able to force the words out.

Tsar seemed to know what she meant. “This is real,” he said, “What you saw wasn't.”

He had reached the shore, and the wolf effortlessly pulled himself up along the rocky beach. He gently peeled Eni's paws from off his neck and set her down carefully; Eni tried to sit upright but couldn't. Tsar caught the back of her head before it could hit the ground and laid her down flat. “Rest,” he said, turning back toward the river, “I'll get your bag.”

“Tsar!” Eni called, managing to raise her arm as he began wading back in.

The wolf paused for a moment, and then he turned around, bending over as he did. He grabbed Eni's paw in his own, weaving their fingers together and lifting her arm as he squeezed. “Ai-daek en ya'alf,” he said simply, and Eni felt her heart slow.

She didn't need to know exactly what the strange Elrim pledge meant to understand what he had said. Tsar set off again, diving into the water and swimming toward the ferry with an incredible swiftness. Eni barely felt strong enough to watch; simply tilting her head to look at him cost an incredible amount of effort. Her strength was slow to return, and it wasn't until he had shimmied up the side of the ferry and crawled into one of the holes the monster had made in it that she managed to sit up.

Tsar had picked an isolated spot to deposit her; Eni was about fifty yards away from most of the crew and passengers on her side of the river. Their gabble filled her ears, the words a jumble she could barely pick over. From the sounds of it, no one had really seen what had happened, everyone spinning their own version of events involving a collision. Eni could even hear Velrisa, the faun eagerly explaining emergency procedures to her mother without so much as a hint of fear, and a small smile twitched across her lips.

Tsar was a dark shadow against the ferry's hull as he climbed out of the hole in the side, ignoring the urging of a crewmember on a half-full lifeboat as he simply jumped into the water and swam back. He held Eni's satchel above his head as he easily made his way through the water, his tail rippling back and forth to help propel him along. When the water was shallow enough, he stood up, and Eni gasped.

She wasn't sure how she hadn't noticed before, when she had been clinging to him, but the wolf was a bloody mess. His clothes were in tatters, half his torso and the creamy white pattern that extended from the underside of his muzzle fully visible. Tsar looked as though he had been flayed, thin angry streaks crisscrossing the right side of his chest and arm. There was even a thin bloody stripe across his muzzle, staining the fur a rusty red.

The wolf looked oblivious to the pain he must have felt, his face quite neutral as he made his way to the beach and sat down beside Eni, placing her bag at her feet. “I put your book in it,” he said, nodding toward the satchel, “Your pen broke.”

He opened his palm and revealed a glittering mess of glass shards that had been her favorite pen. Eni looked at the pieces but couldn't find it in herself to care about something so trivial, not when Tsar was at her side again. “I'll get another one,” she said, her voice weak and hoarse, “How are you?”

Tsar shrugged indifferently without a word, and for a long moment Eni simply sat there, watching the orderly evacuation of the Magnificent Grace. “I don't remember the monster,” Eni said at last, “You broke the window and…”

She paused, a lump in her throat choking out any further words. Eni didn't want to describe what she had seen; to say the words out loud felt as though it could somehow make her awful vision come true. “Monster did that,” Tsar said, shaking his head, “Pulled you out.”

“It did?” Eni asked, frowning as she tried to picture it.

All that came to mind was what she had seen. The image of Tsar striking out with his whip-sword and shattering the glass before abandoning her forever felt seared into her brain. “It… It was drawn to me, wasn't it?” she asked slowly, the words sounding right as they came out of her mouth, “Before the… vision I saw, the river looked like it was boiling.”

She recalled how unreal her view of the world had been, as the magic within her surged, and Eni looked unhappily out at the ruined ferry. “Probably,” Tsar said, although he said the word with a surprising gentleness, “I slayed something like it before. The lord of the town named it a…”

He frowned for an instant, searching for the word. “A Lotophagi,” Tsar said at last.

“The illustration in the Codex Monstrum didn't look anything like that,” Eni said, gesturing vaguely at the hulking corpse of the monster.

“No one but me saw it and lived,” Tsar said quietly, “The Lotophagi can sense magic, the way we can. It might have been growing across the entire riverbed for decades. Centuries, maybe.”

”Why here?” Eni asked, ”Why this river?”

”A trap. A mage… A powerful mage… didn't want another coming to Terregor,” Tsar replied.

Eni considered the possibility, her blood running cold. ”Could it be the one who gave the Woemaker her gauntlet?” she asked, and Tsar's head cocked to the side.

”Possible,” he said, and he didn't need to say more.

Eni could work through the implications herself; if whoever had trained Astrasa in magic and entrusted her with a psycryst was in Terregor, they would know their trap had been sprung. She didn't even want to think of who could have left such a vicious trap, which was cruel beyond measure. It seemed completely unconcerned with the suffering of the innocents on a boat that would surely accompany a mage, and her heart sank as she looked at the wreckage of the ferry.

Tsar seemed to sense her mood shift and looked down, waiting until Eni looked back. She gazed into his eyes, and he held it without flinching. “Just bruises and cuts,” he said at last, “Only the Lotophagi died.”

Eni's heart felt as though a set of fingers had loosened from around it. “Oh,” she said, and tears started welling up.

“I shouldn't have said what I did,” Eni blurted, not able to keep it in anymore, “I shouldn't—”

There was so much she wanted to say that she didn't know where to start. But as helpless sobs made her entire body shake, Tsar cut her off. “No,” he said firmly, “You deserve an answer.”

He looked away, staring at the ground. Eni looked at her fingers, feeling the smooth and slippery rocks of the beach against them. The sleeve of her jacket had a number of holes in it she hadn't seen before, as perfectly circular as though they had been made with a punch the size of a copper coin. She stuck a finger through one of the holes and winced; there was a raw wound on her arm that exactly matched the damage to her clothes.

“That's what a Lotophagi does,” Tsar said slowly, and Eni wasn't sure if he was explaining the final awful question she had asked or trying to push it off, “It sensed you and grabbed you. Sent its tendrils through the window and pulled you out.”

He paused a moment. “What's that codex say about it?” he asked.

“Just that it killed twenty villagers from Orlindale before you slayed it,” Eni replied, picturing the entry in her mind, “Not much else.”

Tsar nodded. “It didn't kill them right away,” he said, “It captures its prey. Binds to them.”

He gestured at Eni's ruined jacket sleeve, and she remembered with a fresh wave of disgust what she had coughed up. “Then it traps their minds and feeds,” Tsar continued, “When I slayed the first one…”

Something flickered across the wolf's face as he trailed off, and Eni couldn't read his expression. “Too late for its victims. Nothing more than husks,” he said, his voice containing a hard edge he didn't seem able to hide.

“It lashed out at me when I cut you free,” Tsar went on, and he didn't have to point at the horrible injuries to his right side, “Had to get you out first. If it had still been touching your mind when it died…”

“Nothing more than a husk,” Tsar said again, and Eni shivered in horror.

“Thank you,” she said, and he brushed her gratitude away.

“When it touched me I saw what it was showing you,” he said.

Tsar looked at Eni again, and sympathy filled his eyes. “I understand what you saw,” he said quietly.

Eni simply nodded, too choked up to say anything. “There was a mage in Orlindale,” Tsar said, “A sheep, no more than eleven and still coming into his power. That's what the Lotophagi wanted.”

Eni felt a horrible sinking feeling as she knew where Tsar's story was going. “It had halfway grown into him,” he said, “Eaten away everything it didn't need to keep his mind alive. I put an end to it.”

“You ended his suffering,” Eni said, placing a paw atop Tsar's, and he didn't react.

”There were others,” he said, “Other mages. Some of them used their power to hurt others. I slayed them. But there have been children, too. I've always been too late for them.”

Tsar paused again. “It's not too late for you,” he said, “Maybe I can do more than kill.”

“You can,” Eni said, and she squeezed his paw as softly as she could, “You're not just the Slayer.”

“Thank you,” he said, so softly that Eni could barely hear the words, and they sat there in silence for several minutes.

Eni felt as though she would have been content to sit on the riverbank at Tsar's side forever, but a crewmember of the sinking ferry approached them, waving a lantern. “Are you alright there?” the mammal called out.

Eni smiled, and it felt entirely genuine. “We are,” she said, and as she stood up Tsar did the same.

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