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Chapter 47: Psychopomp

Updated: Feb 15



”Magic,” Eni repeated, her voice barely a whisper, ”How?”

As she asked the question, glancing down at the corpse and its terrible burns, a sudden memory overcame her. She remembered being seven and seeing the aftermath of a rare thunderstorm in Siverets, when the tallest maple in the village had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Half of the tree had simply been gone, shattered into fragments no larger than her fingers, but what remained had been an awe-inspiring sight. The ruined trunk had smoldered for days, burning from the inside out, and the rough bark had been scorched with a peculiar and distinct pattern.

A pattern that looked just like the one seared into the hedgehog's clothes and flesh.

”Lightning?” Eni asked, and Tsar nodded.

”Supposed to look like an accident, I think,” Tsar said, ”Lab had equipment like one of Rongen's experiments. A… stator, I think he called it. Generates…”

The wolf paused, apparently trying to remember the word. ”Galvanic energy?” Eni suggested; she had once attended a lecture from a professor in the natural sciences department who had suggested that it might one day be possible to harness the raw power of thunderbolts.

The demonstration portion of the lecture had been a device incapable of doing more than generating weak static shocks, but she supposed the same principle might be at play. ”Yes,” Tsar said, ”Rongen was trying to make a safer whip-sword.”

He touched the hilt of the weapon hanging at his waist. ”Galvanic piles instead of compressed gas. Thunder instead of fire,” Tsar said, and then added, ”Never worked right.”

Eni was intensely curious about what the inventive raccoon had tried and failed to create, but before she could ask anything, Tsar continued. ”Always too weak,” the wolf said, and then he motioned toward the corpse, ”Couldn't burn like this.”

Eni frowned; Tsar's point had been quite easy to follow. ”So someone wanted to make it look like she died in a laboratory accident,” Eni said slowly, ”If she did make the poisons used on Helthford and the Archivist, I suppose they might have been covering their tracks. But…”

Eni looked up at the ceiling, thoughtfully running her fingers along her head and down her ears. ”Did you smell anyone?” she asked hopefully, turning to Tsar, ”Whoever killed her, I mean.”

The wolf shook his head. ”Destroyed the scent,” he said, and Eni's frown deepened for a moment before she brightened.

”We still have the goblet, though,” she said excitedly, ”And Professor Lannike's analysis. That's enough to prove the Archivist was poisoned, even if we can't prove who made it.”

Tsar shook his head. ”Who's the City Guard report to?” he asked quietly.

Eni's heart sank in her chest. ”You're right,” she said, ”Procerus is still Lord Warden.”

It still seemed almost certain that the wolverine was an Archon, and if he was he would surely have no compunction about ensuring that their feeble evidence never made it to the ears of anyone who could do something useful with it. Eni felt as though the simple truth should have occurred to her, no matter how hungover she was, and even that was a weak excuse. Unlike some of her colleagues, who she had seen acting like miserable wretches well past midday after a late night of heavy drinking, she barely even felt slightly out of sorts anymore. The throbbing in her head was nearly gone, and the mug of tea between her paws had quenched her parched throat.

Eni sighed. ”We need something more definitive, then,” she said, ”I'm sure this hedgehog is connected somehow; we just need to figure it out.”

Tsar nodded, sipping at his drink, and another possibility occurred to Eni. ”Why'd you bring her body back?” she asked, ”If this was supposed to look like an accident, I can't imagine Procerus would have his soldiers dispose of the corpse. The whole point ought to be for someone to find it.”

The wolf locked eyes with Eni. ”Theurgy's not gone yet,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, ”Not entirely.”

Eni's eyes widened as she realized what he was suggesting. ”You mean… You want me to try mentalism with a corpse?” she asked, and she could hear the horror in her own voice.

Tsar looked utterly unperturbed, and his answer sounded almost conversational. ”Not quite mentalism. Same principle,” he said simply, ”Good practice. No mind fighting back against yours. Just… an echo.”

Eni swallowed hard, and Tsar reached out and gently put one paw around hers. His touch was tentatively light, as though he was afraid she would flinch away, but she didn't. Eni sat for a moment, and although her paw was still wrapped around her steaming mug of tea she could still feel the heat of Tsar's fingers against the back of her paw. She could even feel his pulse, steady and even, and she looked up. ”You can do it, Eni,” he said, and his voice had a certain richness it usually lacked, ”You burn bright. Not a match. Not a lamp.”

Tsar held her gaze, his eyes gleaming. ”The sun,” he said simply, and then he let go of her paw, pulling his fingers away slowly.

”I…” Eni said, but her protest died in her throat.

The wolf's expression should have looked the same as it always did. He wasn't smiling. His eyes weren't wide. Even his ears were positioned as they normally were, betraying nothing. But there was still something more, something that Eni felt more than she saw, and she nodded. ”What should I expect?” Eni asked, taking a deep breath.

”Not like mine,” Tsar said, ”Or yours. This hedgehog wasn't a mage; most of the theurgy left is from what killed her. Probably less of her left than Athel.”

Eni considered his answer for a moment before speaking. ”Can you… come with me?” she asked hopefully, but he shook his head.

”I'd be…” Tsar began, and then paused for a moment before continuing, ”It'd be like you were at the top of a bell tower, trying to eavesdrop on a conversation at the bottom.”

”And you'd be the bell tolling?” Eni asked.

”Precisely,” the wolf replied, and Eni supposed his answer made sense; as the living mind of a powerful mage, Tsar would blot out whatever sorry remnants were left of the hedgehog.

At least, unless Eni improved significantly, and there was only one way to do that. ”I'll try,” she said, and after setting her mug aside Eni took a seat on the floor near the corpse.

Tsar silently sat down across from Eni across the body's small torso, settling his cloak around himself as he looked to her. Eni took in a deep breath and closed her eyes, tentatively reaching out and touching the hedgehog's face. It was disturbingly cold and stiff, and Eni's skin crawled as her fur stood on end. It can't hurt you, Eni told herself, and she tried listening as closely as she could.

At first, all she heard were the usual small sounds of the building around her. There was gentle snoring coming from the unit three apartments to the right, and in the one immediately to the left the tenant was cooking breakfast, something sizzling in a skillet. Within her own living space there was a faint gurgle of water in the pipes and the steady pulse of Tsar's heart and the even sound of his breathing. She turned her attention away, narrowing her focus on the deceased hedgehog. Eni could feel the minutes passing, and there was nothing, the body an utter sonic void.

And then there was a ringing.

It was faint at first, and Eni's first thought was that the clock set into the side of the Terraces of Gorin was chiming the hour. It sounded like the clock, the tones rising and falling in a perfectly familiar pattern, but it was oddly muffled and distorted. Each deep resonant chime stretched out much too long, and as Eni listened more closely the sound became louder, until it was as though she was right in front of the university building, and then—

She was there.

The proud university tower stood before Eni, and her jaw dropped open. Tsar's prediction had been right; it wasn't like what she had seen inside either of their heads. It was as though she had stepped into a watercolor done by an amateur artist; all of the colors were weak and muted, and they bled into each other like running paint. Everything was indistinct around the edges, the hard corners of the building rounded into nearly unrecognizable softness. The individual bricks were utterly indistinguishable, the smooth joints completely invisible. Even the clock itself was nothing more than a pale blob of mixed shades, the numbers and hands unreadable.

Eni lifted up her own arm for inspection, and it was so sharp that it almost hurt to look at. The sharkskin of her jacket and the fur covering the back of her paw were incredibly vivid and seemed almost to glow, the surrounding world's lack of detail making the difference all the more remarkable. All around her, shuffling masses of shapes and color went about their business, and Eni realized she was seeing passersby. None of them was even recognizable as a mammal; the longer she looked and the harder she tried to mentally grasp them the more incoherent they became.

Eni looked about, and the familiar plaza slowly vanished into hazy nothingness around the tower. It wasn't like a heavy fog, where there was still a sense of something there, however invisible it might be; it was as though the world simply ceased existing. It wasn't the white of a blank page or the impenetrable black of a mineshaft, just an obstinately colorless void, and Eni turned her back to it.

Among all the forms there was one that caught her eye as the most nearly mammal-like, gliding toward the main door of the tower, and Eni set off after it. It only vaguely resembled a hedgehog; it was even less detailed than the shade of Athel had been, so crudely formed that its spikes were a single mass. Eni had no idea what it was made out of; it didn't seem to be dust or light or anything recognizable. It was just color, browns and greens and beiges shifting and moving like clouds on a windy day over a central pulsing mass of blue and orange.

”Excuse me?” Eni called as she got closer, reaching out with one arm, ”Excuse me, could you—”

The echo of the hedgehog had ignored her completely, but as Eni touched it something changed. A pure and nearly musical tone sounded, passing through Eni as though it had been a physical blow. The teeming collection of colors boiled and shifted, the outer shell moving away until a brilliant light burst forth. It was blue and orange simultaneously without even the slightest hint of mixing and Eni turned her head away as it burned at her eyes, a sound filling her head.

Sulrisa Glade

For an instant nothing existed but the name, but then Eni's awareness of the strange and muddled world the echo inhabited slowly faded back in. Sulrisa was no longer outside the tower; she was inside a long corridor. Eni thought she recognized it, despite the hazy lack of detail, as one on the fifteenth floor of the tower on the east side of the building. There was a familiar angle to the walls, somehow, and as Eni followed the hedgehog she became surer she was right.

With her certainty, however, Eni's perception changed again with a stomach-churning twist. She was suddenly seeing two visions of the Terraces of Gorin's interior, one superimposed over the other. What could only be her own memory was sharp and crisply distinct, but Sulria's echo blended its details into hazy indistinctness. Eni took a deep breath, trying to suppress her own memory, and she could almost hear Tsar gently murmuring directly into her ear.

You want what she saw. Not what you remember.

The wolf had never actually spoken the words, but it felt as though it was what he would have said, had he been present.

Or so you hope.

The thought came to Eni in her own voice, and she couldn't deny the truth it contained. She was out of her depth, operating entirely on what felt right rather than any sort of knowledge. Somehow that wasn't as worrying as it should have been, though, and Eni almost felt calm as she kept following the specter. Her own footsteps made absolutely no sound against the floor, which was strangely featureless; what should have been a repeating pattern of geometric figures was only a vague smear of varying hues. As she looked down Eni could feel the lines begin to sharpen and she sternly shook her head until the sensation faded.

She turned her attention instead to Sulrisa, watching carefully as the figure waddled along. Or at least, Eni supposed she was waddling; the hedgehog didn't have any noticeable legs, but something about the way the flowing colors moved back and forth suggested it. The echo came to a sudden halt, the amorphous shades that made up its torso shimmering and gliding across each other. Eni got the idea that the hedgehog was searching her pocket for a key, and after a moment the suggestion of a door appeared in the wall. The portal wasn't quite rectangular; its borders were indistinct and constantly changing, like a reflection in a pond disturbed by rain. But Sulrisa passed through it without hesitation, and Eni followed.

The room she found herself in was more fully realized than the hallway that led to it; what could only be Laboratory Twenty-Seven was gorgeous. The ceiling was high, with buttresses curving smoothly out to meet it, and the wall opposite the door had a long line of windows. Beautiful golden light poured in, as mellow as a late autumn afternoon, and the contents of the laboratory had a luminous quality beyond what any piece of equipment should have possessed.

As Eni looked around, although she had never even seen any of the devices before she somehow knew what each and every one of them was. There was a stator pushed into one corner, the massive glass and felt assemblies just waiting to be set into motion. A large tank full of the ghostly suggestion of frogs was set next to one filled with water and the promise of eels. The vessels themselves were nothing more than sketchy shapes and colors, but Eni felt absolutely certain of what they contained; the answer was obvious.

Eni was seeing Laboratory Twenty-Seven, where the mysteries of galvanic potentials were studied, as Sulrisa must have seen it. The hedgehog had loved everything in the lab, from the exotic and somnolent creatures sacrificed for the advancement of knowledge to the vast arrays of chemicals and metals its storeroom held, and it showed.

The echo of the deceased researcher was moving about the space, growing ever so slightly more distinct as she did so. For the first time, Eni could actually see her quills individually, and the blurred suggestion of a face resolved itself into an approximation of what she must have been like in life. Sulrisa had a slightly distracted air to her, as she looked about, as though her attention was never fully on whatever it was she looked at.

”What happened?” Eni asked gently, looking down at the hedgehog, ”Please, show me.”

Her voice sounded harsher than usual, and it cut through the air like a knife, disturbing the light filling the room. Sulrisa didn't answer, continuing to putter around the lab as she glanced at assemblies of ceramic and metal and tapped on beakers full of shining liquids. And then Eni heard the door to the laboratory open.

A strange sensation crept up the back of Eni's neck; she hadn't closed the door after herself, or heard it close, but as she turned to look it was undeniably swinging aside to reveal the hedgehog's guests. The room suddenly felt smaller and colder, and Eni stared at the intruders, trying to make sense of them.

They were even more inchoate than the pedestrians who had walked about outside the Terraces of Gorin; they were barely even identifiable as mammals. They were just shapes, one tall and one short, but they weren't made out of pulsing splashes of color dancing about.

They were voids.

Each figure was somehow spun out of webs of darkness; all the light that touched them simply stopped, leaving nothing but infinite darkness. They had no eyes, or even suggestions of eyes, in their amorphous heads, but Eni could tell that they were looking to Sulrisa as they glided into the lab. In their wake, the room's illumination failed, leaving behind nothingness that Eni couldn't bear to look at.

”What… here… master…” Sulrisa asked, bowing respectfully.

Her voice faded in and out, recognizable words surfacing before the sounds dissolved into nothingness.

The taller of the two figures swung its arm and uttered something, and Eni's blood crawled through her veins. What she heard had been as harsh as the buzzing of a wasp's nest, pulsing with barely restrained anger, and it didn't matter that Eni couldn't make out a single recognizable word. The figure was furious, and Sulrisa recoiled, the shapes that made up the echo briefly breaking apart before they joined back together.

”I… exactly… requested!” Sulrisa said, clasping her paws together, ”Please… understand…”

The shorter of the two figures spoke, its voice slower and calmer than its companion. ”Who… request?” it asked, and even as its voice drifted in and out there was something undeniably familiar about its cadence to Eni, ”This… initiative…”

The hedgehog's echo gestured emphatically, and although Eni couldn't hear the name when she spoke she somehow knew what she meant anyway. The hedgehog had been thinking of someone she knew, someone she trusted, and even without the slightest idea of the mammal's name or what they looked like Eni understood she was seeing the truth of the matter.

The taller wraith laughed, and the sound was terrifying beyond reason. It didn't sound like anything the throat of a mammal could have produced; it had a strange and sibilant quality that filled Eni with fear down to her very core.

No! Eni thought sharply, That's what Sulrisa's feeling!

It didn't quite help, and Eni's heart began beating wildly even as her feet seemed glued to the floor. The tall and sinister figure strode forward, tendrils of shadow peeling off its malformed body, and it grew increasingly larger as it advanced, towering over Sulrisa. Its featureless face glared down at the quaking hedgehog, who was weeping tears that seemed to cut holes through the forms that made up her muzzle. ”She'll be next, then,” the monstrous creature said, and for the first time its voice was clearly audible and perfectly recognizable.

The Woemaker.

Astrasa's paw shot out and seized Sulrisa by the neck, effortlessly lifting the hedgehog's echo. For a moment, Eni could see the cruel leopardess's eyes, burning with pure loathing from within the shadowy figure as she glared at the helpless mammal in her grasp, and then she was a void once more. The infinite darkness that composed the Woemaker's body was bleeding into Sulrisa, spreading from where her fingers clutched at the smaller mammal.

The shorter of the two figures raised one paw and spoke, but Eni could only make out a single word: ”Accident.”

Astrasa's grasp slackened for a moment as her head turned to the side, apparently considering the room, and then it turned back to face Sulrisa. ”You'll have your lightning,” the Woemaker purred, and there was a sudden explosion of light.

For an instant the inside of the laboratory was like staring into the sun, and Eni cried out as she shielded her eyes. Ribbons of pulsating energy, branching and crackling, poured out of the Woemaker's gauntlet, which was briefly visible before it became a colorless void once more. Sulrisa screamed, the colors that made up her echo burning brightly for a moment before splitting like a dropped vase. Angry cracks of pure nothingness ran through her form, and then Astrasa tossed her carelessly aside.

The light began to drain out of the room, everything growing as dark as the figures of the Woemaker and her companion, but just before it went completely dark Eni caught a glimpse of the true form of the mammal who had accompanied the leopardess. She couldn't make out the face or head, which were already wreathed in blackness, but on its chest there was a golden medallion engraved with a sigil.

Eni stared at it, and then it was gone, claimed by the void. She reached out and—

Eni's eyes opened.

She keeled over on her side, her breaths coming so rapidly and shallowly that she didn't feel as though any air was making it to her lungs. Her study was somehow too bright, too real, after what she had seen, and her familiar shelves of books swam around her. ”You're doing fine,” Tsar's voice came, sounding almost soothing, ”You're fine.”

Eni blearily shook her head, swallowing hard as she tried to push herself into a sitting position. Her arms felt completely boneless, but before she could fall flat on her face Tsar caught her. He was no longer sitting on the other side of Sulrisa's corpse; Eni was staring up at the wolf's face and she realized her head was resting on his lap. ”I—” Eni began, croaking the word, ”I—”

”Give yourself a moment,” Tsar said, and his face was surprisingly gentle, ”What you did was hard.”

Eni uttered a shaky laugh, the sound evening out as her breathing slowed. ”I saw what Sulrisa saw,” she said at last, and it was all a jumble in her head, ”Right before she died.”

She tried sitting up again, and Tsar gently supported her until she was no longer in danger of falling over. It took a moment; her apartment still seemed to be swaying around her, but her strength felt as though it was returning. She hesitantly turned until she was facing Tsar, and the wolf regarded her curiously. ”What did you see?” he asked.

”I… I saw her echo,” Eni began slowly, ”Outside the university. I followed her into Laboratory Twenty-Seven and…”

”I could understand her,” Eni said, groping for the right words, ”I knew her name, and what everything in the lab was for. And I've never even set foot in it! By the Mother, I don't think the door's ever been open when I've walked past.”

She giggled, the sound slightly hysterical, and Eni took a few deep breaths until the mad urge to laugh had passed. ”You saw what was important to her,” Tsar said quietly, and relief filled Eni's chest.

The wolf understood what it was she had seen, and she was more grateful for that than she could say. ”Yes,” Eni said, nodding, ”Yes, that's exactly it.”

Tsar didn't speak; his pale eyes remained on hers, catching the early morning light and gleaming blue. He waited with perfect patience as Eni marshaled her thoughts and continued speaking. ”I saw two figures enter. At first, I couldn't make out who they were. They were just darkness; it was like they were made out of nothingness.”

Eni shuddered as a vision of the apparitions flashed across her mind. Her description felt terribly inadequate, but the right words to capture their true nature just wouldn't come. Perhaps they would, when she tried writing in her journal, but for the moment Eni simply plunged on. ”They asked Sulrisa—the hedgehog, I mean, that's her name—some questions, but I couldn't make out all the words. They were…”

Eni groped for the right way to put it, but when she spoke the words came out before she was fully aware of what she was going to say. ”Sulrisa had done something at someone's request, and they were furious about it,” Eni said.

”Poisoning the Archivist?” Tsar asked, raising one eyebrow.

”Maybe,” Eni said, scrubbing at her face with her paws, ”I couldn't tell. And then the taller of the two figures… For just an instant… It was her.

From the recognition in Tsar's face, Eni knew she didn't have to explain any further, but she forced the name out anyway. ”Astrasa,” Eni said, a cold stab of fear pricking at her heart, ”She picked up Sulrisa with that gauntlet of hers and…”

”Lightning,” Tsar said quietly.

Eni nodded, and there was a brief pause before Tsar spoke again. ”What about the other figure?” he asked.

”He talked to Astrasa,” Eni said, ”Told her… Or maybe ordered her… That it should look like an accident. I never saw his face, but…”

Eni dredged up the memory of the medallion she had seen, but there was no mistaking it. The sigil of a pen crossing a broken sword, surrounded by a wreath of laurels and stars, was only used for one thing. It was a symbol she had seen frequently enough to have it perfectly memorized, even if she had only ever seen the actual physical badge of office once.

”It was Chryson,” she said, ”I'm sure of it. He was wearing the sigil of Terregor's Chief Bureaucrat.”

Tsar didn't look surprised, but Eni supposed there was no reason to be. ”He had it on when we saw him in the Archivist's office,” Eni said, ”Maybe… Maybe he went to the laboratory right after that.”

Tsar shook his head. ”Didn't smell Lieren on him,” he said quietly, ”Or her magic, when we left the building. You would have felt it too.”

Eni sighed. ”So what does this tell us, then? I still couldn't tell if Astrasa reports to Chryson or the other way around, and I have no idea why they killed Sulrisa.”

She gestured at the hedgehog's corpse, which somehow seemed sadder and smaller than it had before Eni had seen the unfortunate mammal's last moments. An edge of frustration had crept into Eni's voice, but when Tsar answered he was calmly placid. ”We'll figure it out,” he said, and after a moment Eni nodded.

”We need to go back to the library,” she said, ”We can pick up that book and then go and see the Archivist.”

She paused a moment. ”What time is it?” she asked; her vision hadn't felt as though it had taken very long, but even with her limited experience with magic she knew her perception of time couldn't always be trusted.

”Ten bells,” Tsar said, and then he shrugged and added, ”Or so.”

”Ten bells,” Eni repeated, shaking her head in wonder, ”Well, the library's definitely open now. But…”

She paused as she stood, looking down at Sulrisa's mortal remains. ”We ought to cover her,” she said, ”It just… It doesn't feel right, leaving her like this.”

Tsar didn't protest, and Eni ran upstairs to rummage through her linen closet for the worn-out set of sheets she ought to have gotten rid of but had held onto anyway. They were soft with age, the fabric worn thin in places, and when she shrouded the hedgehog Tsar helped her cover the body entirely. It wasn't much, but it felt like something, at least. It would have to do until they could ensure Sulrisa was properly cremated, but as Eni gathered up her satchel something else occurred to her. 

”Did anyone see you last night?” she asked; even if Terregor hadn't been locked down against the threat of an unknown killer, a wolf carrying the badly burned body of a hedgehog would have stood out.

Tsar simply glanced back at her, for an instant almost seeming insulted, and Eni remembered that even without a corpse he had been in flagrant defiance of the city's curfew. Clearly, the wolf was confident he had passed unnoticed, and Eni held out her paws apologetically. ”I was just asking,” Eni said, and he simply nodded, looking mollified.

Eni took one final look through her satchel, making doubly sure she hadn't lost anything during their meeting with Professor Lannike, and then swung it onto her back. She headed for her front door, but then froze as she heard the sound of someone approaching. There was the distinctive tapping of a staff clicking against the floor between each shuffling step, and Eni suddenly realized who it was.

She pulled her door open and found herself staring into the Archivist's face. The old markhor looked terrible; his ears were flushed with exertion and he was wheezing desperately for each breath, feebly supporting himself on his staff. ”Master Archivist!” Eni cried, ”What are you doing here? You ought to be in bed!”

She reached out and grabbed him, his arm feeling as fragile as glass in her paws and feverishly hot. ”No time,” he gasped, ”Couldn’t trust… Had to be me. Please, Eni.”

Eni helped him inside, clearing off the nearest chair and guiding the Archivist to it. ”Tsar, could you get him some water?” Eni asked, and the wolf nodded, padding silently up the stairs to the kitchen.

”I had…” the markhor began, ”I had…”

He was clearly struggling to speak, and when Tsar reappeared with a mug Eni grabbed it and pressed it into the Archivist's hooves, holding them steady as he drank. He trembled so much that Eni was sure the water would have all run down the front of his clothes if she hadn't helped, but after he was done he steadied somewhat. ”I had to warn you,” the Archivist said at last, ”They're coming for you and the wolf.”

”Who is?” Eni asked, but she knew the answer even before her mentor said it.

”Archons.”











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