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Chapter 45: The Mountain Spirit




Eni hadn't realized how much she had really missed the Archivist until she began telling him her story. Even as he was, bedridden and feeble, there was an undeniable strength to him that practically poured out of the markhor and into his office. His eyes were watchful, never leaving hers from the first word about Ctesiphon to the last about the ferry. Even as the room had darkened with the setting sun, and Eni had lit the lamps on the walls, the Archivist's focus on her was absolute.

His interruptions were infrequent but always gentle, and Eni held nothing back. When she had been on the verge of explaining her first lesson in magic she had equivocated for only a moment, the hesitation of long habit breaking in the face of the Archivist's gentle curiosity. ”So it was a teacher you sought,” the markhor had said mildly, nodding his head slowly, ”I always did wonder why…”

He had trailed off with a sigh. ”I wish I could have instructed you in the ways of magic,” he had said, and when Eni had given his gnarled fingers a light squeeze he had rewarded her with a kindly smile.

”No matter,” he had said, ”Please, continue.”

In all, Eni's recitation took hours, and throughout it all Tsar didn't say a word. The wolf remained grimly silent, his eyes all but boring holes through the Archivist as he waited for Eni to finish. Tsar sat stiffly in his chair, his tail twitching slightly from side to side, and every time the Archivist spoke his nostrils flared ever so slightly. When Eni had spoken her last word, the Archivist settled back in his bed, looking up at the ceiling with a thoughtful air. ”I suppose it is my turn,” he said, his voice quite soft, ”However, before I begin it seems there is something else to address.”

The Archivist pushed himself to a sitting position with obvious effort, and although Eni jumped out of her seat to help him he waved off her offer of assistance without a word. Rather than looking at Eni, he turned to Tsar. ”You have something you wish to say?” he asked mildly.

Tsar frowned, the expression very nearly a grimace. ”You… remind me,” he said at last, ”A… tutor I had. But…”

Eni looked to the wolf, and in his face she saw the far-off look she had seen whenever his mind drifted toward the past. He had never claimed that his mother was his only instructor, and she wondered how he had been raised. Perhaps he had passed his youth in an idyllic village, as Eni herself had. Or maybe he had been eternally on the move in the nomadic Elrim style.

”But?” the Archivist prompted, looking at Tsar expectantly.

”Smell different,” the wolf said after an awkwardly long pause.

”Ah,” the Archivist said, nodding his head, ”It must just be my face, then. But if you truly are the Slayer, we have met before. When you passed through Tonitruas after slaying the Beast of Orgue Forest, I was there.”

Eni tried to imagine what her mentor would have been like, a hundred and five years ago, when the Scourge had been at its vicious peak. She supposed he would have been about as old as she currently was, or perhaps a bit younger, but the Archivist seemed as though he had always been old, and to imagine him in his physical prime was impossible. The old markhor smiled. ”I was much younger then, of course,” he said, as though he had seen Eni's thoughts, ”And I confess, you're not precisely as I recall. You were much less reserved at the revelry.”

Tsar grunted, his pale eyes narrowing as he looked to the Archivist. ”I mean no offense,” the markhor said, raising his hooves in a placating manner, ”Time changes us all.”

”I remember Tonitruas,” Tsar replied, and his face had become impassive again, ”Lots of goats.”

The Archivist chuckled, and although his voice didn't quite have its full strength the sound was still wonderfully warm. ”As you say,” the markhor said, and then his expression sobered to complete seriousness, ”However, it is more recent events that are of concern.”

He sighed, and for an instant he looked older than Eni had ever seen him, the light unflatteringly emphasizing every sign of age. ”I held my tongue when you spoke of the Archons and The Lamentations of Nergora,” he said, ”I didn't wish to bias your judgment, but now I suppose we can no longer avoid the topics.”

The lamps seemed to flicker for an instant as the Archivist turned his head, and the illusion of impossible age was broken. ”Did you work out what the letter I sent you meant?” he asked, and Eni nodded.

”You hid something in the library's restricted stacks,” she said, ”Something at the intersection of the shelves for LAM to MAS and SWI to TAS. I thought it might have been a copy of The Lamentations, but it's not, is it?”

”Very clever, Eni,” the Archivist said, ”You're quite right on both counts.”

He paused for a moment, seeming to gather his strength. ”I'll avoid any speculation on my part,” he said, ”And limit myself to what I know to be true.”

The Archivist settled his hooves across his chest and looked up at the ceiling for a moment before he began talking. ”Chief Bureaucrat Helthford resigned in Septim following a debilitating apoplexy. In her absence, the City Council voted for Chryson Procerus as its new head,” he said, and added, ”I kept the vote from being unanimous.”

He offered Eni a wry smile. ”I do not think it is overly speculative, however, to suppose that he resented my lack of support,” the Archivist said, ”I did not mean to impugn his character, but as Lord Warden he demonstrated a certain… inflexibility in his thinking. 'Hard but fair,' as the more charitable members of the Council put it.”

Eni nodded; everything she had ever read about Procerus suggested that the grim wolverine was unflinching in his interpretation of justice. ”Less than a fortnight after his rise to power, the peril papers reported on a crime that rocked Terregor to its core. You may have read the papers themselves, perhaps, but I cannot impress upon you enough how the mood in the city changed,” the markhor continued, and his eyes were steely behind his spectacles.

”There have certainly always been murders in Terregor, and even ones that capture the public imagination, but those were quite rare. A wife who poisons her unfaithful husband in a jealous rage. A business dispute being resolved with a dagger. Crimes, in short, with some obvious connection between perpetrator and victim. As for the events of the present, however, our Lord Warden's finest constables have come up short,” the Archivist said.

”Is it true, then, that some of the bodies were partially eaten?” Eni asked, and the markhor sighed.

”Some have been found torn to pieces,” he said slowly, ”And some have been found with rather peculiar puncture wounds. So evenly spaced as to make a knife unlikely, and yet much too large to belong to any known animal. Not even a lizard, although I know for a fact the possibility was investigated.”

”A monster, then,” Eni said grimly, and the Archivist raised one hoof.

”I do not wish to speculate,” he replied, and then began counting off options on his fingers, ”Certainly, there are other conclusions that might be reasonably drawn, should supporting evidence be found. Perhaps the murderer used a peculiar and exotic weapon designed to mimic a set of jaws. Perhaps they are an Aberrant so wildly divergent from their species' norms as to be unidentifiable. When you consider likely possibilities, however…”

”We encountered a Zezernak in Ctesiphon and a Lotophagi on the river,” Eni said, gesturing to take in herself and Tsar, ”I don't think it's much of a reach to suppose there might be a monster here, too.”

”Indeed,” the Archivist said, his tone thoughtful, ”Indeed.”

He paused for a moment and then continued. ”Alongside the murders came a rash of disappearances. Popular speculation is that those who have disappeared have been murdered and the bodies simply never found, but there is of course no proof to support this conclusion.”

Eni nodded. She supposed that someone else might have been irritated with the Archivist for how he continually hedged his statements, but she knew he was simply doing his best to avoid coloring her own perceptions. ”The killer, whoever or whatever it is, might be holding them prisoner,” she said, ”And some mammals might be trying to take advantage of the situation. Fleeing their debts or the like.”

”In tomorrow's papers you'll doubtlessly read about a homicide from three days ago that was just resolved,” the Archivist said, ”An otter murdered his wife and dismembered her corpse, attempting to pin the crime on whatever is stalking the city. He was, however, rather careless in his attempted cover up.”

The old markhor sighed. ”But such crimes, though gruesome, are not our immediate concern,” he added, ”In response to the horror engulfing Terregor, Procerus used his authority to institute a curfew and greatly extend the City Guard's numbers. He has, in fact, bolstered those numbers with mercenaries, as you may have noticed from his personal guard.”

”Mammals who are loyal only to him,” Eni said, and the Archivist nodded.

”And, while no one on the Council quite dares to say the word 'monster,' there have been repeated demands for access to the university's collection for any scrap of information that might indicate what we are dealing with. While I was still in the fresh throes of my angor, Procerus even had Ulmior's Vault locked down, just in case whoever is behind the attacks wishes to destroy precious information that could indicate their guilt.”

”He sealed the Mountain?” Eni asked, her mouth falling open, ”He can't do that! Only the Archivist can—”

”I am aware,” the markhor said mildly, raising one arm to quiet her, ”But in these troubling times, the Chief Bureaucrat's authority is all but absolute. Now, what conclusions do you draw?”

Eni frowned, her heart still pounding with outrage over Procerus's act of utter disrespect. Ulmior's Vault was the crown jewel of the university's collection, containing documents and artifacts too precious to be held in the Terraces of Gorin, and control of it was supposed to be in the paws or hooves of the reigning Archivist. ”I do think it's likely there's a monster involved, somehow,” she said.

”Something aquatic or semi-aquatic,” Eni added slowly, considering the possibilities, ”A Kalivore would have injected its victims with venom, and anyone who had even paged through the Codex Monstrum would be able to identify the bite of a Portimeya. I don't know, can you think of anything Tsar?”

The wolf simply shook his head, remaining utterly silent. ”That means anything that the library might have would be ancient,” Eni said, ”Something predating the Slayer himself.”

”And?” the Archivist asked, carefully considering Eni.

”And I'm sure you've already searched the collection yourself,” she said, ”You probably had Belritas and Jennus check, and they must have come up short too. If the three of you couldn't find anything… Well, there's nothing to find. Procerus's search is pointless.”

The markhor bowed his head. ”And from that deduction, what further suppositions may you draw?” he asked.

”Procerus isn't looking for a book about whatever is stalking Terregor,” Eni said firmly, and the pieces were starting to come together in her head, ”He's… He's an Archon, isn't he?”

”It pleases me to hear you come to that conclusion,” the Archivist said, ”What else?”

”It… It explains everything,” Eni said, her eyes widening, and she jumped out of her chair and began pacing the office, suddenly too full of energy to sit still, ”We know the Archons are trying to translate Derkomai. That's what Procerus is looking for. The mercenaries he hired… They must be Archons, too. And if they could somehow get a Zezernak in Ctesiphon, they must be responsible for what's going on here.”

Eni was speaking more rapidly, nearly fumbling over her words in her haste to get everything out. ”Chief Bureaucrat Helthford's apoplexy wasn't a coincidence; it was what Procerus needed to get into power. And—”

Eni leaned against the bed to steady herself. ”And neither was your angor,” she said, looking right into the Archivist's eyes, ”He had you poisoned to get you out of the way.”

”Excellent!” the Archivist said, with surprising cheer and strength for someone so sickly, ”Oh, I've missed you Eni.”

He beamed at her for a moment and then he spoke before Eni could continue. ”It's terrible news, of course, but I am very glad to have, shall we say, independent verification,” he said.

”But— By the Mother, why did you meet with Procerus alone, then?” Eni demanded, ”He could have… I don't know, smothered you with a pillow before I came in.”

”I'm not afraid of him,” the Archivist said mildly.

”You should be,” Tsar said, looking at him.

The Archivist winced. ”Perhaps you're right,” he said, ”Call it a calculated risk, then. It is no idle boast to say that no one alive knows the university's collection as well as I do. If he had resorted to suffocation, many secrets would die with me.”

A weighty silence took hold in the room, and Eni marveled at the quiet bravery of her old friend and mentor. ”In any case, I still live,” the markhor said, turning to Eni, ”And it is those secrets which are of great concern. I do believe it is possible to translate Derkomai, but that is something that cannot be entrusted to Procerus.”

Eni slowly sank back down into her chair. ”What did you hide?” she asked, ”What's in the restricted collection?”

”One half of the necessary materials to perform the translation,” the Archivist said, and at his words Tsar's ears pricked up and the wolf frowned at him, his nostrils flaring.

”Or, more accurately, one third,” the Archivist added, ”There are two tomes required. The Archons can ransack the library from now until the end of time, but even if Procerus finds the one he's looking for, it's useless without the one I hid.”

”What's the third part needed?” Eni asked, but the Archivist shook his head.

”I would prefer not to tell you,” he said, ”Not until you have the chance to evaluate the evidence and draw your own conclusion. Even I err on occasion, after all.”

”Then we need to get those two books,” Eni said, ”There's no time to waste!”

”Patience, my dear, patience,” the Archivist said soothingly, ”You can retrieve the volume I concealed tomorrow. If you go after it now, it may very well raise suspicion.”

Eni wanted to protest, but she knew he was right. The library had closed for the evening, and if she tried accessing the restricted collection in the depths of the Terraces of Gorin she'd leave a trail a blind mammal could follow under the best of circumstances, let alone with the watchful eyes of the Archons on the building. ”What about the other book?” Eni asked, ”The one the Archons know exists?”

”That is likely to be… Difficult to retrieve,” the Archivist admitted, glancing away from Eni with what looked to her like shame, ”The Chief Bureaucrat had my keys confiscated.”

”And the Council didn't protest?” Eni asked, and her earlier outrage only grew, ”He had no right!”

”The Chief Bureaucrat has whatever rights he wishes, so long as the Council doesn't vote against him,” the Archivist said, ”I made the same point, of course, but the other members agreed it was a reasonable precaution well within his powers.”

The old markhor shuddered. ”That was four days ago, when I was still in the hospital,” he said, ”He only brought one mammal with him, all wrapped up like she came from Ghabarahata, but I can still see her eyes.”

”Her eyes?” Eni echoed, and a sense of creeping horror slipped into her belly, ”Were they… Were they gold?”

”They were, yes,” the Archivist said, and a look of realization came over his face, ”Do you mean to say—”

”Lieren,” Tsar interrupted, ”The Woemaker's here.”

Eni's stomach fell away and she looked to the wolf. His face was grim but he wasn't looking at the Archivist; he was looking back at her. ”Is Procerus reporting to her?” Eni asked, ”Or… Does she report to him?”

”Don't know,” Tsar said quietly, ”Trouble, either way.”

Eni nodded, but she couldn't find any words to say. She remembered how the cruel leopardess had fought him to a standstill, and the image of the scarred wolverine trying to do the same thing filled her mind. ”If Astrasa's here, we're on the right track,” Eni said, thinking aloud and trying to slow the sudden rapid beating of her heart, ”But we'll need to act fast.”

”Perhaps… Perhaps there is something you can do tonight,” the Archivist said, speaking slowly, ”Right now, the source of Procerus's power in Terregor is that the Council allows him to wield it. If we can prove who poisoned me…”

”He'd just kill everyone asking him to step down,” Tsar said roughly, ”Seen it before.”

”I don't mean to dispute your experience,” the markhor replied, ”But he's been very careful so far. I don't believe he'd wish to take unnecessary risks.”

”Your life,” Tsar said, shrugging his shoulders.

”The Archivist has a point,” Eni said, ”At the very least, it might buy us some time.”

”If you think so,” Tsar replied.

”I do,” Eni said, holding his gaze for a moment, and then she looked to the Archivist.

”Do you have anything for us to go on?” she asked.

”I had my usual cup of wine before retiring for the night,” he said, ”I didn't taste anything unusual, but within minutes my lips had gone numb and it was getting difficult to breathe. I managed to summon a servant before I collapsed, and then I woke up in the hospital.”

”The cup?” Tsar asked, and the Archivist grimaced.

”I dropped it,” he said, ”And the bottle. The maid cleaned up the mess.”

”Doesn't matter,” Tsar said, shaking his head, ”Where is it?”

The Archivist pointed to a cabinet behind his desk, and Tsar immediately walked over to it, pulling the doors open to expose a small collection of spirits and four small silver goblets. The wolf picked up one of them, which to Eni didn't look any different from its fellows, and brought it close to his nose. ”Faint,” he said, ”Still there.”

”Well, that's just what we need then, isn't it?” Eni asked, ”If—”

”Too faint,” Tsar said, shaking his head as he pocketed the goblet, ”No one else could smell it. Have to take my word.”

”Which is, I'm afraid, quite unlikely,” the Archivist said, ”Unless we introduce you as the Slayer, of course.”

”I don't think that's a good idea right now,” Eni replied, ”Not while the Woemaker's somewhere in Terregor.”

She remembered the calculating look Astrasa had given the wolf, when they had first met, and she wondered what the leopardess had planned for him. ”Then what we need is a chemist,” Eni said, ”If there's enough left for Tsar to smell, there ought to be enough left for an analysis to prove it's there.”

”As it so happens, I know a number of excellent chemists,” the Archivist said, his smile reflected in his eyes, ”I believe Professor Lannike may be able to assist. He'll be holding his 'office hours' at the Wet Drydock, I'm sure. Do you know where that is?”

Eni nodded; she had never been to the tavern before, but she had passed it on the street nearly every day as a student. ”I've never met Professor Lannike, though,” she said.

The Archivist chuckled. ”He's difficult to miss,” he said, ”He's a hippopotamus with a rather remarkable set of tattoos.”

”We should be able to find him, then,” Eni said, nodding.

”You ought to go now,” the Archivist said, and then he smiled.

”If you stay, I may be tempted to ask for a better description of Wordermund's Mausoleum,” he said, ”I only wish I could have been there, to have seen what you saw.”

”I promise not to spare any detail the next time we talk about it,” Eni said, and then she pulled him into a hug as gently as she could manage.

It was difficult to say goodbye, and even as they were leaving the Terraces of Gorin Eni wasn't sure she had made the right decision. It had, at the very least, been what the Archivist had wanted her to do, but she worried about him, all alone in his office. She shook her head, firmly telling herself that if Procerus hadn't decided to finish her mentor off in the past five days he was unlikely to do so right after she left, but her concern was difficult to set aside. ”So what did you think?” Eni asked Tsar, hoping for a distraction, ”Of the Archivist, I mean.”

Tsar considered the question for nearly half a block. The streets were dark and almost utterly deserted; other mammals only occasionally showed up in the glow of the streetlights, which left enormous pools of shadow. ”Explains a lot,” he said at last, ”How he talks. How you talk.”

”You really think so?” Eni asked, not sure if he meant the words as a compliment or an insult.

”Familiar,” Tsar added.

”Like the tutor you had?” Eni asked.

”Your Archivist is… warmer,” Tsar said, ”Kinder. And he only lied once.”

”When he said there were two elements for the translation, you mean?” Eni asked, and Tsar nodded.

”I'm sure he didn't mean to,” Eni said, ”He just wants to see if I'll come to the same conclusions he does.”

Tsar nodded absently, not seeming to care. ”Tsar?” Eni asked suddenly, as something occurred to her, ”The tutor of yours… He lied to you, then?”

”Constantly,” the wolf replied, and he didn't speak again for the rest of the walk to the Wet Drydock.

The tavern wasn't one of the city's beer halls, where mammals expected to be able to go to discuss the news of the day, and that was obvious to Eni when they were still half a block away. The tavern itself only took up one floor, and Eni hoped for their sake that the tenants who lived in the apartments in the floors above it were either deaf or worked the night shift. Her ears were being assaulted by a raucous mixture of music, laughter, and raised voices, which poured out of the modest building like light from a lantern, and the closer she and Tsar got the louder it got.

When she opened the door it was like being struck by a heavy weight; the room was crammed so full of mammals that she could barely see the polished wooden floor and it sounded like everyone was talking all at once. A narrow stage was wedged into one corner, where a trio of musicians tried desperately to be heard over the din, and in the part of the tavern closest to the stage some mammals were attempting what might charitably be called dancing.

Eni maneuvered inside, craning her neck to look for Professor Lannike, and a moment later she spotted him. He was indeed impossible to miss; he very nearly filled a corner booth all on his own, and his face was almost black with tattoos. It took her several minutes to wade across the room, Tsar immediately at her heels, but she at last managed to slide into the booth across from the massive hippopotamus. ”Professor Lannike?” she asked, practically shouting to be heard above the crowd even though he couldn't be more than three feet away from her, ”I need to talk to you about—”

He interrupted her by snapping his massive fingers, and as though by magic a waitress appeared an instant later. She was a little weasel who must have darted through the packed tavern with far more ease than Eni could have managed, and she looked up at the hippopotamus. ”A bottle of Renaican Whisky,” Lannike said, and then nodded to Eni, ”She's paying.”

Eni repressed a sigh and then dug out her purse. By the time she had pulled free what she hoped was enough to cover the alcohol and a decent tip, the waitress was already back, setting down the bottle and three small glasses. ”Professor Lannike?” Eni asked again, and the hippopotamus filled two of them.



”Drinks first,” he said, sliding one across the table to Eni, and he held his own patiently until Eni picked hers up and swallowed it in a single gulp.

The liquor burned all the way down; Eni's throat felt as though it was being cleansed with fire. She coughed, and she felt suddenly aware of a warmth flowing out of her stomach and into all of her limbs. Her blood seemed to tingle and sing in her ears, and the Wet Drydock around them was somehow sharper in a way that had nothing to do with what she heard or saw. The hippopotamus looked at her expectantly as he gestured at his empty glass on the table, and Eni forced back a grimace as she picked up the bottle and poured two more shots. 

”So,” she said, giving the professor one and lifting the other, ”Let's talk poisons.”


 













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