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Chapter 40: Currents of Creation

Updated: Jan 1

“It's just seaweed, is all.”

“It's a river, idiot. Whoever heard of seaweed in a river?”

“Fine, river weeds, you oaf. But you're dimmer than a mineshaft if you can look at that thing and tell me it's a monster.”

“Ask her, then. She fell out of the damn boat. You, rabbit! What is that?”

Eni found herself suddenly the focus of attention from two squabbling passengers, a slender buck and a somewhat paunchy ram looking at her expectantly with nearly identical scowls. The deer, who was the one arguing for the Lotophagi being nothing more than an enormous mass of weeds, pointed one accusatory finger at the monster's corpse.

“I…” she began, but the sheep cut her off before she could say anything more.

“Look at her arms, for the Mother's sake!” he said, nudging his companion hard in the ribs, “You look like that when you get done gardening? Damn thing attacked her!”

Eni swallowed hard, sparing a glance at the ruined sleeves of her jacket. She didn't seem to be bleeding anymore through the shallow wounds the grasping tentacles had rasped into her flesh, but there was nothing she could do for the fabric of her clothes. “It's… It's got thorns,” she said, the words sounding rather lame to her own ears, “Must just be a bunch of weeds.”

“I told you,” the buck told the ram, pushing him so hard that the shorter mammal stumbled, “A monster. Pah!”

The deer spat on the ground. “Too many stories when you were a lamb, that's what I say; if it’s really a monster then what killed it?” he continued, and as the sheep fumbled for a retort Eni found herself being swept away.

Tsar had grabbed her forearm gently but firmly, his paw below her wounds as he guided Eni away from the crowd. They had been all huddled together around a fire that the crew had lit on the riverbank, the remains of the monster and the ruined ferry bobbing gently in the water, but Eni didn't mind leaving the warmth behind. The assembled mammals had been mostly quiet as a steward with a booming voice had apologized for the delay in their journey, promising that the ferry would be repaired and ready to continue within a few hours. From the sounds of hammering and the occasional swear that Eni could hear from the boat, it certainly seemed as though the crew was hard at work, but even if the steward had been lying nothing would have changed.

Eni knew it'd be at least four or five hours before another ferry passed their way, which meant that in the meantime all the passengers could do was wait. After the wave of complaints and questions for the steward, who had referred to the incident as a collision with debris, most of the mammals present had begun simply gossiping among themselves, swapping stories about what they had seen with little regard for the truth.

Even as she followed Tsar further along the river's course and away from the others, she could still hear them talking, none of them seeming to have a version of events that matched what he had described. ”Thanks,” she said, offering the wolf a weak smile, and he acknowledged her with a small nod.

“I can't believe no one saw what actually happened,” she said, and he shrugged.

“Always that way,” he said simply, and Eni supposed he was right.

The Archivist was fond of warning her to avoid putting too much faith in any one version of events, and she didn't have to look beyond her own area of expertise to know he was right. Eni had seen it for herself in stories of the Slayer, dozens of incomplete testimonies combining into what was at best only an approximation of how events occured. From how rapidly Tsar must have slayed the monster, Eni doubted anyone else on the boat could have seen much more than a brief and intensely bright line of light where he had swung his whip-sword.

Eni was quiet for a moment as she kept following Tsar; the wolf had turned onto a tributary of the Nazdya River that wasn't much wider than a stream, the water lapping gently at its banks. Glancing over her shoulder, Eni was surprised to see they had put perhaps a quarter mile between themselves and the ferry, the lights of the boat and the fire on the shore still easily visible. If she strained her eyes, she could even see the ghostly green glow of the Lotophagi's corpse.

“Tsar?” she asked suddenly as a question struck her, “The first Lotophagi you killed. In Orlindale, I mean. How did you know what it could do?”

He looked back at her, his expression unreadable, and then he looked forward again as he kept walking. The little branch of the river they were on was widening into a surprisingly deep lake ringed by stately trees, the water glittering in the moonlight. Steam rose off it and there was a faint smell of sulfur in the air, a testament to what could only be a natural hot spring.

“I felt it die,” he said quietly, his voice barely more than a whisper, “Touched it while it was still thrashing. Didn't have a mind. Not like a mammal. Just… impulses. Desires. It flailed for my power like someone drowning grabs for a rope. Would have pulled me into oblivion after it if I let it.”

Eni repressed a shudder, not even wanting to imagine what could have happened. A flash of the despair she had felt shot through her like a thunderbolt and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to will it away. But no matter what she did, she could almost feel the snow against her cheek again, lost in a nightmarish vision with no escape. Eni forced her eyes open and looked to Tsar, trying to take comfort in his undeniable reality, but the fear didn't leave her. “It shouldn't be called a Lotophagi,” she said suddenly, her voice unsteady, “That doesn't make any sense.”

She laughed, the noise nervously high-pitched, as Tsar cocked his head to the side in obvious puzzlement at her complete non sequitur. “It's just…” she said, fighting down a mad case of the giggles she couldn't explain, ”It's just… 'Lotophagi' means 'Lotus Eater' in Classical Word. And… And…”

Eni snorted, her stomach hurting as she tried to keep talking. It wasn't funny in the slightest, but she felt as though she would cry if she didn't laugh. “It's supposed to be an 'Eating Lotus' isn't it? Whoever named the first one must have… must have thought it looked like a lotus flower. But they… they botched the name.”

Tsar simply looked at her blankly for a moment, which only made her laugh harder, and then his features relaxed slightly. He didn't smile, the corners of his muzzle not so much as twitching, but there was a light to his eyes Eni rarely saw. “The Lord Mayor of Orlindale was…” Tsar began, pausing as he searched for the right word, “Pompous.”

It took nearly a minute for Eni to get over her fit, gasping for breath as she calmed down. Tsar waited patiently, gracefully folding himself into a seated position until Eni could speak again. Despite the gashes in his clothes he had managed to avoid exposing his own injuries, his sodden and voluminous cloak barely even looking more ragged than it usually did. Eni sat down next to him, gazing out over the shimmering water of the small lake. “I'm sorry,” Eni said at last.

“Don't have to apologize for laughing,” he said simply.

“You never do,” Eni replied, “Laugh, I mean.”

“You're not very funny,” Tsar said, rather dryly, and Eni smiled.

“That was a joke,” she said, “Not a good one, but it was a joke.”

She felt almost as though she was babbling, but her composure was gone as horror and elation warred for dominance. Perhaps it was just the lingering aftereffects of what the Lotophagi had done to her, but she felt alive in a way she almost couldn't describe, as though she was filled with an energy that couldn't be denied. Her power didn't seem to be bubbling loose, though, so maybe it was nothing more complex than the nearly hysterical euphoria of surviving the monster's attack.

“But how did you do it?” Eni asked, “How did you hold onto hope?”

Before her terrible vision of the future, Eni would have thought she knew better than almost any mammal alive what it meant to fight on in the face of overwhelming odds. She had spent years searching for the Slayer, in stubborn defiance of everyone who said he was gone, and her determination hadn't so much as wavered no matter how many dead ends she went down.

The Lotophagi had changed that.

Eni had never before felt anything as intensely as the crushing weight of the years of failure the monster had shown her, abandoned by every ally and by civilization itself until she had to go on alone in exquisite solitude. But while that had been an illusion, Tsar had lived that very experience. Rongen seemed to be the only friend the wolf had, the only one who he had traveled with in his long and lonely years after the Scourge had ended.

Tsar didn't answer immediately, his fingers idly sweeping through the grass as he considered her questions. A slow breeze made the steam rising from the lake twist and shift like the flames of a bonfire, patterns appearing and vanishing just as quickly. Eni watched, feeling nearly mesmerized, and then at last he spoke.

“You want to know how to protect your mind,” he said, turning to Eni as he ignored the spectacular view.

She nodded, and to her surprise he sighed. His pale eyes looked unfathomably ancient, and a chill that had nothing to do with how wet she was went down Eni's spine. “Mentalism,” he said after a moment, “Any magic is difficult to master, but mentalism is…”

Tsar paused, groping for the right word, and then finished his thought. “I was taught most of what I know about magic,” he said, speaking slowly.

A far-off look came across his face, his head tilting ever so slightly to the side before he shook it as if to dislodge cobwebs. “Not mentalism. There was no one to teach me anything but the name, just what I learned myself. That thing in Orlindale was my first tutor.”

“Oh,” Eni said, and she couldn't hide her disappointment.

Tsar was silent for a moment, and then he suddenly added, “I'll try to teach you. I don't know how yet, but… I'll try.”

He didn't say the strange Elrim words for a promise, but he didn't have to. Eni knew he meant to do his best; she could hear it in how he spoke and see it in how he held his head. “Thank you,” Eni said, and he nodded gravely.

She watched the moonlight play across the water's surface a moment longer and then turned to Tsar. “We have at least a few hours before the ferry's ready,” Eni said, “Do you want to keep going with your reading lessons?”

The wolf shook his head. “Tired,” he said, “Will you make sure I don't sleep too long?”

Eni blinked in surprise; although he slept every night she still somehow had a sense of him as utterly tireless, never complaining or showing any signs of weakness. “Of course,” she said, “I'll keep an eye out.”

He nodded and then stood, his soaked cloak falling heavily to the ground an instant later. The rest of his clothing followed too quickly for Eni to have a chance to look away, but before she could get much more than a glimpse of the gleaming white fur that was usually hidden away he was shaking himself dry, his body a blur as water sprayed in every direction.

Eni cried out in surprise, lifting one paw to shield her eyes from the droplets, and by the time she had lowered it Tsar was curled up into a tight ball. His long tail was wrapped around his body, preserving the modesty he evidently lacked, his eyes closed and his ears tucked back into his wild mane.

She shook her head, feeling water drip off her ears, and then turned to make sure she had a good view back the way they had come before pulling her journal out of her satchel. Eni almost looked for her favorite pen before she remembered what had happened to it, and she sighed as she dug around for a spare. What she eventually emerged with was perfectly functional, if not as beautiful, with a well-worn brass body and a gleaming silver nib.

It was the pen she had used for years as a student of the university, but it felt cold and alien in her grip as she started writing. Picking up from where she had left off immediately before the monster's attack should have been simple. She hadn't been in the middle of a paragraph, let alone a sentence; the last words she had written stared neatly back at her in a way that should have been inviting.

Except for the blotch on the page.

It wasn't much. There was just a dried drop of ink, barely larger than a corn kernel, marring the otherwise smooth white of the page. Eni knew that it was where her paw had slipped as the Lotophagi reached through the windows of the ferry and grabbed her, but when she looked at it a different memory came to mind.

She could see Tsar, his face twisted in disappointment and hurt, as he shattered the glass and jumped off the boat as her power rose uncontrollably. She could see her pen slip through her fingers as she desperately tried pulling herself together, too late to make a difference.

It didn't matter that what she had seen hadn't happened. It didn't matter that she could glance over her shoulder and see Tsar, his chest rising and falling gently as he napped.

It felt real.

“It's not,” Eni murmured to herself, speaking without thinking, “It didn't happen.”

She strained her mind, trying to call up what must have actually transpired, but it simply wasn't there. The vision that the Lotophagi had given her had slipped in like an acid, etching away reality and replacing it with its own version of events.

Unless this is the vision.

The words seemed to echo in her mind, whispered slyly in her own voice. But it didn't sound like the voice of her power.

It sounded like her own thought.

Eni shook her head hard enough to make her ears flop over, but the pit of her stomach still clenched as though Fenris was sitting on her again. What if Tsar had never pulled her free? What if the Lotophagi, sensing her resistance to a nightmare of despair, had given her something pleasant and soothing instead? Eni shivered, feeling the idea worming its way deeper into her mind.

This is reality,” she said, firmly and louder than she had meant to.

Tsar shifted minutely in his sleep, his ears flicking briefly upright before settling back against the unruly fur of his mane. Her words hadn't been enough to wake him, but they hadn't been enough to banish the idea completely, either. Eni closed her journal and set her pen aside, staring out into the lake as she tried to drink in the details. She scarcely could have imagined a more idyllic spot to wait for the ferry to be repaired; the water looked invitingly warm and pleasant bathed in the pale glow of the moon. Gwared Mountain loomed in the distance, its snow-covered cap glimmering faintly, and the rolling plains of the Circle stretched out before her.

Eni stood suddenly, and began ferociously tearing at the buttons that kept her jacket together. She threw it aside, the ruined sleeves fluttering wetly as it hit the ground, and stared down at it. The holes should have been reassuring, yet another sign that the Lotophagi really had grabbed her. All she saw, though, was what she had seen in its mentalism-induced vision, when she had finally discarded the jacket after years of travel had completely worn it through.

It had been a gift from the Archivist, his own wordless way of encouraging her travels. That alone had made it her favorite, the one she always wore and had painstakingly repaired when it had been damaged before. She could see the slight difference in the color of the thread on the right lapel, even with nothing but the pale lunar light, where she had fixed it after snagging on a rock. It should have been a pleasant reminder of how carefully she had looked after the garment, but instead the idea of replacing the holed sleeves only filled her with revulsion.

Eni realized she never wanted to wear the jacket again, and as she looked down at it she caught a glimpse of the shirt she was wearing. Its sleeves were destroyed in just the same manner, and she peeled it off without a second thought. The yellow that should have looked cheery instead looked sickly and washed out, and she decided she wasn't going to wear it again, either.

She stood for a moment, feeling the air against the bare fur of her chest, and shivered. The breeze was warm when it came across the lake and its steamy shroud, but the night was otherwise cold and she was soaked. The feeling of snow pressing against her body came to her, completely unbidden, and Eni fumbled desperately with her belts, pulling them free and letting them fall with a metallic jangle. Her trousers were next, and she nearly lost her balance and toppled over as she pulled the clinging fabric free of her legs and her underwear came off.

Eni was left clad only in moonlight, and without thinking she ran forward and jumped into the lake.

The long practice of her days in Siverets turned it into a graceful dive, and she cut through the water with barely a ripple. It was wonderfully warm, as though she was being embraced by her mother again, and Eni laughed. It felt impossibly real against her, the temperature absolutely perfect. While the water lapped against her Eni could barely even think of what it felt like to be cold, and the idea of snow was nothing but a dim fantasy.

Eni paddled about, relishing the opportunity to swim in a way she hadn't since leaving her hometown behind, and then she pulled in a deep breath and dived. The water was amazingly clear, almost as though it was generating its own light, and she could see down to the bottom. With a powerful kick of her legs Eni descended, the lake feeling serene and perfectly peaceful the further away from the surface she got.

Her hearing became muddled as her ears filled with water, the pressure pushing gently against her eardrums, but she didn't miss hearing the world above. It was as though she had been left with nothing more than a feeling of how vast the lake was, the muffled sounds of waves just barely coming across. As she swam she could see the dried blood in the fur of her arms coming loose and dissolving, and Eni smiled, rubbing her arms together to help it out.

In her younger days she had been among the best divers in all of Siverets, able to stay underwater so long that her parents had always been half-proud and half-worried when she would finally surface. The passage of time and a lack of practice didn't feel as though it had degraded her ability at all; Eni could feel her pulse flowing slowly and steadily and had no urge to go up for air.

She was perhaps fifteen feet down, the water finally starting to become darker, but the silty bottom of the lake tantalized her to go deeper. She could see bubbles gently escaping from a crack in the mud, which could only be one of the spots that gave the water its pleasant warmth. Large rocks poked out here and there, thick with weeds, and Eni let out a laugh that came out as nothing more than a silvery stream of bubbles as she remembered the argument she had been pulled into.

The current that connected the Nazdya River to the lake seemed to have carried some debris from passing boats; Eni could see a turnbuckle, so rusty that it was barely recognizable, and something that might have been a cotter pin next to a shard of pottery.

She descended just a bit further, until she was gliding just above the lakebed, being careful to stay just far enough away to avoid kicking up the mud and clouding her vision. There were no clamshells with their promise of pearls, as there were in the waters outside of Siverets, but force of habit had her scanning the depths this way and that until something caught her eye.

She almost thought it was a rock at first, it was so badly corroded, but as she approached she saw an eroded curve that could only represent something mammals had made. Eni reached down and gave an experimental tug, but the object pulled loose with so little resistance that she nearly did a flip as she maneuvered to avoid hitting herself in the head. It looked to have been made of polished brass, once upon a time, but what must have been at least decades underwater had made it a pitted green-blue. The entire object was barely larger than Eni's palm but quite heavy, and as she turned it around to inspect it more closely some of the mud caked to it fell away. The object seemed to have been a thick and neatly circular plate, and when she turned it over Eni nearly dropped it.

On the backside there were three gears, all made of the same golden alloy as the doors of Wordermund's Mausoleum, and as resolutely untarnished as the rest of the assembly was decayed. A burst of excitement filled Eni and she kicked her way to the surface, cradling the mechanism to her chest until she broke free at the shore.

“Tsar!” she called, standing in thigh-deep water as she carefully placed the artifact on the shore, “Look! I found an astrolabe! Look at the metal the gears are made of—it must be at least four thousand years old!”

Tsar uncurled himself with a start, falling over on his side with a lack of grace that was very much unlike him. He blinked at her blearily, and then his eyes suddenly snapped into focus, his muzzle dropping ever so slightly open as he stared.

As she followed his gaze, Eni realized two very important things: he wasn't looking at the astrolabe, and both of them were completely naked. Her ears burned as she forced her body back under the water until only her head was in the air and she looked down at the artifact rather than up at Tsar.

She could hear him shifting as he pulled his cloak on. “They're… It's very nice,” he said, and his voice had a strained quality to it Eni had never heard before.

“I, uh, I think the monster kicked up the river bed when it surfaced. You were right about it being down there a long time. It must have… It must have knocked some debris up to where the current could take it,” she said, trying for an academic tone and coming up rather short.

Her heart was pounding in her chest and throbbing in her ears, and even seeing nothing more than a distorted view of the top of her chest she could picture Tsar nodding in her head. “Must have,” he said, his voice not quite even, “Do you… want to get out? I'm facing the other way.”

“Right!” Eni said, “Yes, getting out. Right.”

She glanced up; true to his word all she could see of Tsar was his back, his cloak wrapped tightly around him. Eni pulled herself out of the water and over to her satchel, rummaging through it as quickly as she could for something she could use as a towel. The silence felt dreadfully awkward as she dried herself as quickly and roughly as she possibly could, wincing as she rubbed against the injured parts of her arms. Eni groped desperately for a topic as she pulled the first available shirt free from her bag; it was a shade of orange that she had always thought was just a little too bright for her taste. But it was the first one her fingers reached, so she pulled it on, yanking at the hem until her head popped through. “So, the monster,” Eni said, “Did its theurgy disappear too?”

Tsar was silent as she pulled on her trousers so hastily she almost forgot to put on underwear first, but as she was threading her belts through their loops he answered. “It did,” he said, his voice grave, “There's no mistaking it.”

Eni nodded before she realized he couldn't see her. “You can turn around,” she said, brushing an unruly lock of fur out of her eyes as did.

Tsar turned slowly, and almost cautiously, as though he was afraid she might still be naked. When his eyes met hers, though, he didn't look away, meeting her gaze even as he stood. “What does it mean?” Eni asked, although she didn't expect Tsar to tell her anything she didn't already know.

They had, after all, discussed the Zezernak's missing theurgy with Rongen, and the only logical possibility they had come up with was that someone was stealing it as the monsters died, even if it was impossible to tell what they had planned.

“Theurgy… It builds before a Scourge,” he said slowly, “It's like a bunch of sharp rocks placed in a cotton bag. A Scourge wears holes in the fabric of the world.”

“So the theurgy is like those holes?” Eni asked, utterly fascinated, and when Tsar nodded she added, “Why? What makes that happen?”

“Time, maybe,” Tsar said, “Or the positions of the stars and planets. I don't know. But when I was the Slayer, I bled out theurgy. Turned it into magic to make it dissipate.”

“And now someone else is doing the same thing?” Eni asked.

“Maybe,” he said, and Eni could see he was just as puzzled as she was, “I don't feel another Scourge coming. But if it's not just the monsters… If it's all theurgy…”

“You wouldn't know,” Eni said.

“Yes,” he replied quietly.

Eni stood silently, looking at him, and in the moment she felt almost like herself again. “We'll figure it out,” she said.

He didn't answer at first, and then he spoke. “I'm done sleeping,” he said, and Eni felt her ears flush again.

“I'm sorry I woke you up,” she said, ”I just…”

“I just felt like swimming,” she finished, somewhat lamely, unable to put the powerful fear that had motivated her into words.

“I see,” he said, “I've thought of a lesson we can try. For your magic, if you want.”

“Are you sure?” Eni asked, although her heart leaped at the opportunity.

He nodded, and then gestured in the direction of a small grove of trees a bit away from the lake. “We'll try it there. I'll be able to watch for the ferry,” he said, and he started walking.

Eni only stopped long enough to wrap the astrolabe in the strip of fabric she had used as a towel and stuff it into her satchel. She picked up her bag and went after Tsar, leaving her ruined jacket and shirt behind without a second glance.

“How are your ribs?” Tsar asked suddenly.

The wolf had remained silent as he led Eni away from the hot spring and to a nearby grove of trees, apparently entirely lost in his own thoughts. Eni realized with a start that she hadn't felt any pain as she had stripped off her clothes and dived into the lake, and she felt her ears flush at the memory. She didn't exactly regret what she had done, but she wasn't sure she would do it again if given the chance. Eni pressed a paw hesitantly against her chest, and she was surprised when it barely hurt. “Not bad,” she said, pushing down more firmly.

She winced, but the pain didn't take her breath away. It was nothing more than a dull ache, as though she had simply bruised herself instead of cracking multiple ribs. She shot a glance at Tsar; the deep cut across his muzzle where the Lotophagi had lashed out was still visible but it didn't look fresh. “We heal quickly,” he said quietly, seeming to realize where she was looking, “Didn't think you'd be this fast.”

“Should I be worried?” Eni asked, brushing her fingers across her side.

The very last thing she wanted was yet another sign of her lack of control, but Tsar didn't look concerned. “No,” he said, “Just haven't met anyone as strong. The closest was…”

His eyes took on a far-off look as he trailed off. “Your teacher?” Eni prompted, when he didn't continue.

“I've been thinking about her,” Tsar said after a moment, “How she taught me. How she would have taught you.”

He paused for a moment, and then added, “She hated books.”

Eni could no more imagine what it felt like to hate books than she could imagine what it felt like to hate breathing, and she stared at Tsar. “You're not me,” he said, his voice quiet, “And I'm not my mother.”

“You wouldn't have gotten along,” he continued, and Eni thought that the corner of his muzzle tweaked upwards ever so slightly, “Or maybe you would have. She was… determined. Like you.”

“I wish I could have met her,” Eni said, and it was the honest truth.

It wasn't that her interest was purely academic, however fascinating it would be to speak with the one who had raised the Slayer and shaped him into the warrior he had become. It wasn't even that her interest was selfish, either, out of hopes for someone who would be a better tutor in the way of magic than Tsar himself. Eni just knew that she wanted to learn more about Tsar himself, and she regretted the lost opportunity.

Tsar simply nodded absently, and then he pulled himself up straight, focusing all his attention onto her. “Do you understand theurgy?” he asked abruptly, clearly considering the topic of his mother finished.

“I don't,” Eni admitted, “Not really.”

Tsar stood still for a moment, his ragged cloak fluttering around him. “You're better,” he said at last, “At explaining. I…”

He paused, his ears flicking back a fraction of an inch. “I'm trying,” he finished, and Eni saw for an instant the frustration in his face his voice didn't show.

“I understand,” Eni replied, “We won't stop until we figure out what works best for both of us, so you can teach and I can learn.”

“We won't stop there,” Tsar said, and Eni laughed.

It was somehow comforting to know that the wolf did actually have a sense of humor, no matter how dry his delivery was. “Right,” she said, smiling, and Tsar nodded gravely.

“You remember the pump in the tomb?” he asked suddenly.

“I don't think I'll ever forget any of that,” Eni said, repressing a shudder; what had happened in Wordermund's final resting place felt burned into her mind.

“You might be surprised,” Tsar said, and his expression and words were utterly serious.

Eni felt as though the air between them had gone cold, Tsar's entire body looking grim and solemn. “You said there was a water wheel. To keep the pump going,” he continued, and Eni nodded.

“Why?” he asked.

She stared at him for a minute; he had asked the question simply enough but he made it seem incredibly important. “Because… Well, a pump won't run forever on its own,” Eni said slowly, “Without the water wheel, it'd run until it was dry and then never again.”

Tsar didn't seem satisfied with her answer. “Where's the water come from?” he asked, “Why won't it run out?”

“From a river connected to Lake Turgon, I suppose,” Eni said, “And the reason the lake doesn't just empty is because of the water cycle. Water evaporates off everything on Aerodan and then comes back down as rain. So I guess it's the sun that keeps the lake full.”

“Good,” Tsar said.

He was quiet a moment before he spoke again, choosing his words carefully. “Magic isn’t theurgy,” he said, “Theurgy is in everything living, the same as water. In the world around us, too, the same as water. And…”

Tsar trailed off, but he didn't have the sound of a mammal who didn't know how to finish his thought. He looked to Eni expectantly, and she realized that he wanted her to say what came next. “And…” she began hesitantly, “And you can… You can make it do work? The same as water, like with the water wheel.”

“Yes,” Tsar said, and although the word itself was simple Eni heard something like satisfaction in it.

Her heart swelled with pride as Tsar continued. “If you put a water wheel in a pond, what happens?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Eni said, feeling more and more confident that she was grasping his point, “The water needs to be flowing to make it spin.”

“When you do magic, it's like you're making the water flow,” Tsar said, “The water wheel spins, and water collects downstream of it.”

“And when theurgy fades… It's like the water evaporating?” Eni asked.

She pictured in her head two water wheels, one the size of a spool and one large enough to run a mill. She could imagine them both, one put into motion by a cup of water and the other requiring a river, and Tsar nodded emphatically. “Exactly,” he said, his pale eyes flashing.

“The monsters, then…” Eni said slowly, ”The Zezernak and the Lotophagi… When they died, their theurgy should have… Should have flowed into the world. And it didn't?”

“It didn't,” Tsar said, his puzzlement obvious, “I don't know what happened.”

“It'd be like if a lake just disappeared,” Eni said, more to herself than to him, ”Not evaporating like a pond can, but just… vanishing.”

”You understand,” he said, and the true scope of the mystery became apparent to her.

The missing theurgy wasn't a loss like a coin falling out of a purse or a loose page torn from a book. It was something that should have been utterly impossible, and Eni wondered what could be responsible. She shivered in a way that had nothing to do with how cold it was outside, but her unease couldn’t match her sense of triumph. For once, she thought she fully grasped one of Tsar's explanations, and she gave him a smile. “That was a good lesson,” she said.

“It's not over,” he replied, “Time for you to try Mildeus again.”

Tsar produced a candle from within his ragged clothes. His tail emerged a moment later, its narrow tip delicately wrapped around a match, and with an easy flick against the hilt of his whip-sword he lit it. The candle followed a moment later, the wick catching fire and bathing the surrounding trees with its feeble light.

“Sit down,” Tsar instructed, and Eni did as he said.

The wolf took a seat facing and held the lit candle over her cupped paws. “Close your eyes,” he said, and she did.

“Focus,” Tsar said, “Breathe in and out. See the flame.”

Eni concentrated as hard as she could, trying to picture the fire in her head without being able to actually see it. The breeze blew past, making Tsar's cloak rustle, and she could somehow hear the flame sputtering. It wasn't anything that she could have described, but the image was there, so clear that she even knew the way it had moved and subdivided before coming back together like a drop of quicksilver against a floor.

The fire felt warm and liquid to her mind, and Eni remembered what Tsar had said about theurgy being like water. It called to mind something she had learned when she couldn't have been more than about nine, when she had been taught there was another ocean besides the one that crashed its waves against the shores of Siveret's beaches. Everyone in the world, no matter where they lived, did so at the bottom of a vast ocean of air, pressing down on them like water. It only looked as though it wasn't there, but the wind was like the sea's currents, Avians navigating as nimbly as any fish.

But in the same way that the ocean covered much of Aerodan's surface, and the sky covered all of it, theurgy was another layer up. All of the Mother's creation must have been bound by it, and Eni pictured how it must move and fade.

Her heartbeat was a steady pulse in her ears, like the sound of a pump in motion, and Eni could suddenly hear magic. There were strings of it, flowing in and through everything that lived, and in front of her Tsar was like an entire orchestra. There was such beauty and complexity in every fiber of his being that Eni almost wept as she listened to the soaring chimes and bass rumbles that made him up. It was music beyond anything she had ever dreamed of, something without any obvious notes and yet much more than a cacophony. She could pick out everything, and the sounds coalesced into something she could see.

Tsar was before her, his every artifice stripped away. There was no whip-sword at his waist or battered armor on his legs. There were no bracers at his wrist or ragged cloak wrapped around his shoulders. He was as utterly naked before her as he had been at the hot spring, his lean physique unlike anything she had ever experienced. Colors beyond imagining filled her mind, the fur that should have been an inky black shimmering instead. She could hear his heart, beating slow and steady, and he pulsed with it in a riot of impossible shades. He burned red-green and purple-orange, each shift accompanied by a subtle change in the tones he produced.

No work of art Eni had ever seen could possibly compare to what he was. There was grace and power in every line of his body, in everything she could see and hear. Her power was all around her, in her, and it was like water.

It was a sip from her canteen when her throat was parched. It was the ripples a stone thrown into a pond made. It was standing in a rain shower in the summer, the water cool and refreshing as it soaked her through. It was floating in the ocean on a calm day, the gentle movement of the waves rocking her from side to side.

It was bliss.

Tsar's voice drifted to her ears, as though it was coming from very far away. “Open your eyes,” he said, and Eni spoke without thinking.

“I don't want to let go,” she said, her own voice almost overwhelmingly loud in her head.

“You won't,” Tsar replied, and Eni did as he asked.

The world around her wasn't alive the way the picture in her head had been, and she swallowed her disappointment as she looked down at her paws. There, cupped between her fingers, was nothing. She hadn't been able to hold onto the flame after all, and she sighed.

Tsar was still sitting in front of her, his eyes locked onto hers even as his head cocked to the side. “Why did you do that?” he asked.

“What?” Eni asked, “Sigh?”

He nodded, his pale blue eyes not leaving her for an instant. “I failed,” she said, gesturing toward her outstretched palms with her chin, “I still can't get it.”

”Look closer,” he said, and Eni humored him, looking down.

For a moment, she thought that he was perhaps making another joke. All she saw, at first, were her fingers and her legs clad in a familiar pair of trousers. But just as she was about to say she saw nothing, there was something.

It wasn't much, but her view of her fingers rippled for a moment, like the haze of heat coming off the road ahead on a hot day. “You're holding the flames,” Tsar said, and with wonder Eni realized he was right.

The fire was simply burning without any color whatsoever, a little orb with borders she could only just barely perceive by the slight haze of distortion it produced. “I'm doing it,” Eni said, her voice awed, and when she listened closely she could hear the flames pulsing in time with her heart.

“Very good,” Tsar said, and although his expression was still short of a smile Eni could see one in his eyes.

“I thought it'd be… I don't know. Like a normal fire,” Eni said, turning her attention back to the fragile and tiny burning sphere.

It couldn't have been much more than two or three inches across, and as it danced inside her palms she could feel just how weak it was. “Or green or purple, like the effects in a play,” Eni added, but there was a grin across her face as she spoke.

“Stand up,” Tsar said, “Carefully.”

Eni did so with exquisite slowness, gradually unfolding her legs and pushing herself upright without the use of her arms. “You felt it,” Tsar said, “All around you.”

“Yes,” she replied, “It's like… It's like water.”

“Release it,” Tsar said, gesturing at her still open paws, “Like letting water flow between your fingers.”

Eni took a deep steadying breath and then slowly spread her arms wide. She expected the invisible ball of fire to dissolve or disappear almost instantly, but it didn't. Eni could feel it slowly coming apart, growing larger even as it became weaker and weaker.

“Give it a push,” Tsar said, and Eni made the gesture even as she imagined playing in the ocean as a kit.

The flames winked out of existence, but Eni could still feel the energy of the little orb she had formed coming apart and spreading.

What happened next was extraordinary, so beautiful that it evoked what she had seen in her mind's eye. The theurgy she had marshalled and pushed out into the world was catching against the trees that surrounded her and Tsar, and they came alive.

Ghostly colors ran up and down their bark, blooming as they spread across the branches and out the leaves. Eni had never seen anything like it; it was as though a veil on the mundane world had been pulled back to expose an incredible secret. Even the straggliest of the trees was suddenly impossibly beautiful, stately beyond measure and imbued with elegance. The mosses and lichens were alive with a delicate phosphorescence, glowing palely in the night air. As the cool breeze blew past, all of the shades danced and shifted, burning just bright enough to make Tsar glow in their reflected light. His eyes were more alive than Eni had ever seen them, and for just an instant she thought she saw her own delight mirrored.

The moment passed as the colors bled away, leaving behind nothing but dim grays and browns and greens. Spots of color still clung to her eyes, and Eni blinked them away with a twinge of sadness, watching as reality at last reasserted itself fully.

“What was that?” Eni asked, tentatively reaching out one paw and touching the nearest tree.

Nothing met her grasp but rough bark the same color as drying mud without so much as a hint of the spectral glow she had seen. “You know,” Tsar said quietly, and she did.

She had pushed a minuscule amount of her power out into the world and it had caught against the life that surrounded them for a moment before fading. It must have been a tiny amount of theurgy, just enough to make an impressive glow before it evaporated like a dew drop in the morning light. “Thank you,” Eni said, hearing the awe in her own voice, “That was… That was amazing.”

“You did it,” he replied simply, and Eni's response was instant.

“You told me how,” she said, and the wolf regarded her for an instant before looking away.

“We ought to get back,” he said, pointing with his tail in the direction they had come, “Ferry's almost ready.”

Eni squinted off into the distance, but the lights of the boat and the bonfire on the shore were nothing more than specks to her, difficult to make out in the pre-dawn dimness. “I'll take your word for it,” she said, and Tsar nodded solemnly.

He set off, walking in the direction of the rocky beach with a sense of purpose about him. The wolf looked noble, despite how ragged his clothes were, and Eni repressed a sigh of contentment as she followed. Her first success with the Mildeus Technique wasn't much to brag about. She had felt the flames coming apart even as she had pushed them away, and the ball had been so small that a kit could have wrapped their fingers around it.

But it had been a success, and Eni felt her heart swell. She had actually been able to follow one of Tsar's lessons, and that alone gave her hope for when he would turn his efforts toward teaching her mentalism.

Might need to know that.

The thought popped into Eni's head, unbidden and completely unwanted, and her blood suddenly went cold in her veins. The suffocating feeling of snow against her body, feeble with hunger and age, came upon her and she shivered, wrapping her arms so tightly around her chest that her ribs complained. Eni shook her head violently, trying to push the vision the Lotophagi had shown her away, and Tsar suddenly stopped walking.

“Why'd you say that?” he asked, turning his head to look over his shoulder.

“I— What?” Eni managed to say, willing her voice not to tremble.

“You said, 'No,'” Tsar replied, curiosity evident in his face, “Something wrong?”

Eni took in another breath, focusing on what she saw before her. Tsar was still looking at her, concern evident in his face, and Eni forced her arms back down to her sides.

This is real, she told herself, He's real.

“No,” she said, plastering a smile on her face, “Everything's fine.”

Tsar held her gaze for a moment longer and then kept walking. Eni hurried after him until she was at his side, and as they approached the ferry her fear faded.

But it didn’t vanish.

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