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Chapter 48: Beasts of the Temple

”Then we have to go,” Eni said, ”Now.

She spoke the words with a calmness she didn't actually feel; the icy fingers of fear clawed at her heart, and all she could imagine was Astrasa herself on their trail. But Eni stubbornly refused to allow her terror to win, and she turned to Tsar. ”You're stronger than I am,” she said, ”You're going to need to help the Archivist.”

The wolf caught Eni's eyes for a moment, and then glided over to the old markhor's side and gently assisted him upright. The Archivist's chest still heaved with exertion, and his fingers trembled as he clutched at Tsar's arm and leaned heavily into his shoulder. ”There are… at least three,” the Archivist gasped, wheezing for breath, ”I'm afraid I… don't know…”

”Save your strength,” Eni said kindly, reaching out and giving his gnarled hoof a gentle squeeze, ”We'll get back to the library.”

”Might know we'll go there,” Tsar said quietly, gesturing toward the door with his head.

Eni knew he meant the Archons, and the worst part was she was just as confident he was right. ”That doesn't change anything,” Eni said firmly, ”The longer we wait, the more time they'll have to prepare.”

Tsar considered her a moment and then nodded, shifting slightly to better support the Archivist as they began walking. Eni checked to make sure her satchel was secure on her back and then picked up her trident, gripping the weapon tightly, and crept for the door. 

She strained her ears, listening for any sign of approaching footsteps, but there was nothing. Her heart hammered in her chest, so loud that it almost threatened to blot out the normal little sounds of her apartment building, and Eni held her breath. 

Her paw was almost on the doorknob when she looked back at Tsar, a frown crossing her face. ”Do you hear that?” she asked; it was a sound unlike anything she had ever heard, faint and as dissonant as a poorly played instrument.

Tsar shook his head, his nostrils suddenly flaring, and then his eyes widened. ”Get—”

Her door exploded off its hinges, splinters of wood flying at her before she could do much more than raise her arms. Eni's vision exploded with stars as something struck her face with incredible force, and as her head lolled over Eni saw with a distant sort of wonder that it was her own doorknob, flying free of what remained of the door. She stumbled backwards, colliding with Tsar and the Archivist, but before she could fall over the wolf had twisted and caught her with his free arm.

Eni's head was filled with a terrible ringing and an instant later her forehead began throbbing with pain, the side of her face suddenly hot and sticky with blood. She forced her head back upright, clutching at the wound as she tried looking at the doorway. Even with Tsar supporting her, it was difficult to stay standing; the floor felt as though it was rocking under her feet and the sound filling her ears was only getting louder.

It was discordant and sinister, jarring semitones and pulsing bass notes swirling but never quite harmonizing. Four mammals stepped into her apartment, all of them clad in unremarkable clothes that Eni wouldn't have given a second glance if she had passed them on the street, but they didn't look normal at all.

It was their eyes.

A fanatical gleam filled the face of the one who seemed to be in charge, a brawny male coyote, and the other three mammals were nearly as bad. All of them seemed half-crazed, their eyes wide and staring and their mouths open in smiles that were much too wide. 

Behind the coyote were a pantheress, a ram, and a bulky bison, and they were all armed. The Archons carried strange flails that looked almost like much shorter versions of Tsar's whip-sword, flexible metal chevrons with wickedly sharp edges joined to sturdy hilts.

As Eni watched, another similarity became apparent; the flail that the coyote wielded burst into flames. The fire was an eerie blue-green, snapping and crackling hungrily, but Eni could make out something else. The strange sounds in her ears grew even more grating, and Eni realized what she was hearing and what Tsar must have smelled. She was sensing magic, but that realization was overshadowed by another one.

Her entire apartment was filled with all different kinds of reading material, from books to peril papers to scrolls. What they all had in common, though, was that they were all made out of paper and extremely flammable. All it would take from the coyote was a single deliberate move of his flail and the entire building would quickly become an inferno. 

From his satisfied expression of victory, Eni thought he understood his superior position as he stared at them. ”Submit!” the Archon said, his voice deep and gravelly, ”In the name of the Risen Mother, I command you to submit!”

The reverence in how he said the title was obvious, the words spoken with religious fervor, and a chill went down Eni's back. As her head began to clear she realized that she must have dropped her trident, because both of her paws were completely empty. She chanced a quick glance back at Tsar, and what she saw didn't fill her with confidence. The wolf's eyes were narrowed and locked onto the Archon, but his arms were full supporting her and the Archivist. Eni couldn't imagine how he could possibly draw his whip-sword or use it practically in such a confined space, and she turned back to the coyote. 

”Who?” she asked, blurting the first thing that came to mind as she tried stalling.

The Archon laughed, and the sound was just as unsettling as the look on his face. It was surprisingly high and shrill, leaving his mad eyes untouched as they bored into Eni's. ”The Risen Mother!” he cried, ”The dragoness who brings kingdoms to their knees! She who visits her wrath upon a world that does not deserve her, leaving a trail of woe! And yet!”

The other three Archons all raised their eyes toward the lofted ceiling and his voice took on a nearly ecstatic tone as he continued, ”And yet she will remake Aerodan so that it is worthy. Rejoice, my sister, for her time comes quickly and there is yet a role for you to play!”

”It is promised,” the Archons all said in one voice, and Eni no longer wondered who the head of the Archons was.

They could only be talking about Lieren Astrasa.

The Woemaker.

The Dragon of Karanor.

Their worship was as though the leopardess was a goddess, and from their zealous enthusiasm Eni knew there would be nothing to dissuade them. ”You will not have her,” the Archivist said, suddenly striding forward.

The elderly markhor still clung to Tsar's arm with one hoof, but his other was wrapped around his staff, which was firmly planted on the floor. He leaned on the curling wooden stick even more heavily than he had when he had first arrived, his limbs shaking slightly with the effort. His voice was barely more than a whisper, and even though it was utterly lacking in strength there was an undeniable authority filling it.

”Stand aside, old—” the coyote began contemptuously, but he never got the chance to finish.

Tsar's tail suddenly shot up from where it had been hidden by his voluminous cloak, and Eni's trident was wrapped in its tip. The wolf thrust the weapon forward with such force that it buried itself in the coyote's chest all the way to the ends of the prongs. The Archon's muzzle dropped open in surprise, the unnatural flames burning along the length of his flail winking out as he dropped it. The coyote desperately scrabbled at the trident as blood bubbled out of his open mouth, but Tsar used his tail to give it a sharp upward jerk, pulling it free, and the coyote's movements came to an abrupt stop as he collapsed.

The reaction from the other Archons was nearly instantaneous. The ram was the first to move, charging forward as he lashed out with his flail, and it struck the Archivist's staff so hard that Eni was sure it would break. Instead, the old markhor dropped it, falling heavily against Tsar, and the wolf leaned into him as he guided the Archivist and Eni to the floor with surprising gentleness.

The very instant his paws were free, Tsar drew his whip-sword with his left paw, his arm a blur as he struck out a moment before the ram's next blow could hit him. Even as Tsar was defending himself, hunkered near the floor, his tail flicked back, lobbing Eni's trident so it would land perfectly in her reach. The ram had just enough time to attempt to strike Tsar once more, but the wolf caught the blow with the bracer around his right wrist. The flail wrapped around it, throwing off sparks, and Tsar pulled the Archon close as his left paw spun through a tight arc.

Eni didn't see what he had done, but she heard the horrible sound of cloth and flesh parting as all the fight went out of the sheep. The ram clutched at his stomach, the white wool of his forearms suddenly dyed crimson, and he coughed wetly before keeling over. Tsar was standing before Eni finished grabbing her trident, and by the time she had used it to lever herself upright he was already dueling the pantheress and the bison simultaneously.

The feline moved with a liquid grace just barely short of the Woemaker, her inky fur rippling as she attempted to land blow after punishing blow on the wolf. Her eyes glittered viciously, her lips pulled back in a snarl that bared her fangs, and she twisted and dodged as the tip of Tsar's whip-sword went whistling past. Tsar was using his weapon in a strange manner; he still held the hilt in his left paw, but he had allowed the blade to wrap around his right bracer several times. Eni had only ever seen the technique in antique martial arts treatises, but the wolf had undeniably mastered it; both his arms moved in perfect harmony, the end of his weapon changing direction with frightening speed and devastating power as he maneuvered. Although the whip-sword came close, it never as much as brushed against one of the books on the shelves lining the walls.

The same could not be said for his opponents.

As Eni watched, the bison reached out and pulled at one shelf, sending it toppling toward Tsar as the contents flew across the room in a flurry of pages. ”Yield!” he bellowed in a stentorian voice, hurling a heavy copy of The Principles of Cartography at the wolf's head. Tsar ducked nimbly, his feet picking a path between the books scattered across the floor as he advanced on the pantheress.

His right arm moved too quickly to follow, the length of his whip-sword unwinding from his bracer with a sinister hiss. The feline Archon's arm twitched upward as she tried to maneuver her flail to block, but she was far too slow. Eni couldn't see Tsar's blade, but she heard the sound it made as, like a terrible magic trick, the pantheress's body suddenly ended mid-shoulder. Everything above that point was gone, and the bison bellowed with fury as he pushed his companion's corpse into Tsar's path.

Tsar dodged contemptuously, but in the instant it had taken him to react, the last remaining Archon had set his sights on Eni. The bison was massive, so tall that his horns brushed the ceiling and so broad that as he charged Eni couldn't see past him. She raised her trident as the looming mammal filled her vision, his face splattered with the pantheress's blood and an awful feverish light filling his eyes. He swept back his flail, preparing for a savage cross, but Eni didn't block it.

The movement should have been instinctual after all the training she had done to learn her weapon. Captain Jeito had taught her the foundations of using a trident as more than a tool for fishing, and she could still imagine his lessons and the sound of his voice. But rather than hearing the serow, gruffly instructing her in how to raise and twist the shaft to catch an opponent unaware, Eni heard a single piercing note that somehow bypassed her ears to go straight to her mind.

She spun her trident in the opposite direction of how she would normally divert the strike, acting before she could even think about what she was doing. Terror bloomed in Eni's belly as she was suddenly sure she had made her final mistake, sure that she had left herself hideously vulnerable to a blow that she couldn't hope to survive. But as her trident swept up, although its tines passed through nothing, Eni suddenly met resistance and a metallic ringing filled the air.

For an instant, the Archon had four arms, one on each side of his body holding a weapon, and a dull pain that had nothing to do with the throbbing lump above Eni's eye filled her head as her mind tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Her trident was and was not locked against the bison's flail, her view simultaneously ghostly and undeniably solid.

Then the illusion fell apart, and the bison's flail really was caught between the prongs of her weapon. He pulled so hard that Eni lost her grip on her trident; it was torn from her fingers and went flying across the room. The Archon reached out with one massive hoof, grasping for Eni's neck, but just as she could feel his hot breath against her nose he froze, going entirely rigid. ”You—” he began, ”You—”

Eni twisted to the side just in time to avoid being crushed under the bison as he fell forward, his blazing eyes losing their focus. The entire apartment shook as he hit the ground, sending up a flurry of dust from the rug, and Eni saw Tsar's whip-sword embedded in the massive mammal's spine. The wolf wrenched it free as easily as if it had been a hatchet stuck in a sapling, giving the blood-soaked weapon a quick shake and then wrapping it back around his waist in a single smooth gesture. 

Tsar wasn't even breathing heavily, but when he turned to Eni there was a strange look on his face that Eni couldn't quite read. For a brief moment he didn't look angry or content, exactly; it was almost the same way he considered a jar of honey before pouring it into his tea. ”Well done,” he said, and his voice was quite placid, ”Saw through his illusion.”

”I… I heard it,” Eni said, struggling for words, ”I…”

Her heart was pounding furiously in her chest, and she suddenly felt very tired. ”I don't know how to describe it,” she said.

Tsar inclined his head thoughtfully. ”Talk later,” he said simply, and then he glanced up at the wound above her eye, ”How bad?”

Eni touched it and winced at the pain; the wound had swollen up to a sizable lump, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. ”I'll live,” she said, offering him a weak smile, but it vanished as she suddenly thought of the Archivist.

The markhor was still where he had fallen to the floor, surrounded by stacks of books that had collapsed into untidy heaps with blood flecking their open pages, but he gave Eni a small smile of his own as they locked eyes. ”So shall I, thanks to your friend,” he said, his voice weak and raspy but still full of an incredible warmth.

He groped around slowly for his staff, and Eni picked her way carefully across the room to get it for him, easing her mentor to his feet as gently as she could. ”I don't wish to complain,” the Archivist added, directing his attention to Tsar, ”You have my gratitude, and I find myself entirely in your debt. However, I must confess I do wish you hadn't slain them all.”

Eni privately agreed with him; the Archons presumably knew far more than they had revealed, but the opportunity to ask was gone. She held her tongue, not seeing a reason to say anything, and Tsar considered the Archivist for a moment. ”Only way,” the wolf said simply, and at his words the Archivist nodded gravely.

”I don't suppose they would have stopped fighting, had there been an ounce of life left in them,” the old markhor said, ”Fanatics, by definition, cannot be reasoned with.”

”No,” Tsar said, the word short and clipped, and he didn't say anything more, glancing at Eni.

He was clearly waiting for instructions, and Eni took in a steadying breath. ”We can't assume that was all of them,” she said, ”Our plan doesn't change.”

”I'm afraid it won't just be Archons,” the Archivist observed, ”The City Guard will not be sympathetic if they come across this scene.”

He gestured to take in the mess that had once been Eni's study, and she saw his point. Counting the hedgehog, there were five corpses scattered across the floor, the pleasantly musty smell of paper overpowered by the cloying reek of blood. The battle had seemed to stretch on for far too long, but in reality it couldn't have been much more than a couple of minutes. 

No matter how Eni strained her ears, there was no sign of her neighbors, and she was sure that at least one of them had overheard or seen enough to go running for the nearest soldier.

”They won't,” Eni said, nodding, ”Let's get going.”

At the Archivist's insistence, they paused only long enough to wipe off the worst of the blood coating them, although except for Eni none of it was their own. The Archivist had wiped delicately at the lump on Eni's head with his own handkerchief as Tsar watched, his face inscrutable, and once Eni was clean the wolf had offered her the trident. She felt a twist of discomfort as she took the weapon back, the blood of the coyote cleaned off the gleaming prongs, but she accepted it and said a silent prayer to the Mother that she wouldn't have to use it again.

Eni felt as though a hundred eyes were upon her as they left the building, Tsar helping the Archivist along, but she told herself she was just being paranoid. She couldn't spot any mammals wearing the familiar uniforms of Terregor's City Guard, but she couldn't stop glancing about, her eyes roving the crowds filling the street and her ears on high alert.

”You're drawing attention,” Tsar muttered after they had gone about twenty or thirty paces, ”Stop looking guilty.”

Eni swallowed hard, trying to smooth out her features just as the wolf could. Tsar, at least, didn't seem to be having any difficulty; his face was blandly disinterested, and from the manner in which he was supporting the Archivist as the old markhor limped along he simply looked like a servant. 

As mammals walking the opposite way glanced at them, Eni did her best not to avert her eyes or stare too closely, and it was only when they had traveled three blocks that she started relaxing even slightly. If someone had run out of her apartment building, screaming for help instead of simply running for the nearest guard post in silence, soldiers would almost certainly have already showed up.

In theory.

Eni couldn't deny the possibility that they were being followed, but Tsar didn't seem concerned and she did her best to emulate him. ”I've been thinking,” Eni said slowly, trying to find a distraction as they carefully made their way toward the Terraces of Gorin, ”About Astrasa.”

Tsar grunted to indicate he was listening, delicately clearing the way through the press of bodies for the Archivist. ”That psycryst she has,” Eni said, ”You're sure she didn't make it?”

”Yes,” Tsar replied, and Eni could tell the Archivist was watching the conversation with great interest even though he didn't interject.

”But those Archons… They talked about her as though she was… like she was a deity,” Eni said.

She had almost said, ”As though she was the Mother herself,” but the thought was too uncomfortable to say out loud.

”And?” Tsar asked, although his tone was polite rather than dismissive.

”Well… It just sounds like she's their leader. We've assumed that there must be someone she reports to—a powerful mage who made the psycryst—but what if that's not true anymore?” Eni replied.

Tsar considered her words for a moment before answering, waiting until they had crossed a narrow bridge. ”You think she killed her master?” Tsar asked.

”It's possible, isn't it?” Eni asked, ”Maybe she learned everything she could… Even got that mage to make her a psycryst… And then she killed them.”

”Perhaps,” Tsar said, his head tilting slowly to the side.

”I don't know, maybe it's wishful thinking on my part,” Eni admitted, ”I just don't like the idea there's someone even stronger than the Woemaker out there. What do you think, sir?”

She directed her question at the Archivist, and he considered the question for a long time. Some of it, Eni was sure, was that even with Tsar's help the pace they were traveling at was much too fast for the old markhor; he was wheezing for breath and clearly wouldn't be upright without assistance. ”Reasonable theories,” he said at last, ”But without data, nothing more.”

Eni sighed glumly, but before she could dwell on her thoughts for very long the Terraces of Gorin came into view. The massive tower of the university looked the same as it had the last time she had seen it; the crowd of pedestrians making their way along the cramped streets of Terregor thinned out somewhat around the plaza at its base. There didn't seem to be any additional security guarding the building beyond what had been there the previous day, just two mammals posted on either side of the main entrance in the uniforms of the university's gendarmerie.

Eni frowned as she considered the soldiers. Their chain of command, technically speaking, ended with the Archivist himself rather than Procerus, but just as technically they were a part of the City Guard. ”If they don't recognize my authority,” the Archivist said, speaking as though he had read Eni's thoughts, ”Then we shall hope I am not overburdensome to carry while you run, Mister Tsar.”

Tsar's only reaction was a nod of his head, but Eni forced out a chuckle at the markhor's dry joke. As they crossed the plaza, getting closer to the gendarmes, Eni was sure something would happen. Surely members of the City Guard or more Archons would boil out of a nearby building to surround them. Perhaps the Woemaker herself would be in the lead, her cruel face shining with delight as they saved her the trouble of finding them.

But when they were fifty feet away, nothing had happened. The day remained as calm and still as things ever were in Terregor, the sound of water flowing through the canals and of voices raised in conversation forming a soothing backdrop. When they were within ten feet of the mammals, Eni could swear that both of them, a trim otter and a tall doe, stiffened ever so slightly, and Tsar’s ears flicked momentarily back.

The gendarmes held their halberds out, blocking the door, and the deer spoke. ”What are your demands, wolf?” she asked, her voice harsh and commanding, ”What do you want in exchange for your hostages?”

Eni's heart sank as she realized they were too late to get into the library unnoticed, the simple brilliance of the Archons' lie occurring to her. By accusing Tsar of kidnapping the Archivist and Eni herself, they had ensured there was nothing either of them could do to claim otherwise. Any guard would assume Tsar had forced them to say what he wanted them to, and as Eni glanced at the Archivist she saw he was just as stunned.

”Don't you worry, Master Arctus or Professor Siverets,” the otter said in a more soothing voice, looking at them each in turn, ”The Lord Warden will do whatever it takes to secure your freedom.”

Eni had never heard a more blatant lie, and she almost laughed as the two gendarmes pointed the tips of their polearms at Tsar. ”Speak, wolf!” the deer ordered, ”This doesn't have to end violently.”

But as Eni looked to Tsar and remembered what had happened in her apartment, she was afraid it would.

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