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Chapter 51: The Harbinger

Updated: Mar 14




The Lord Warden's private residence was one of the few buildings in Terregor that had survived the Age of Anarchy mostly intact, and as Eni was led inside she was almost overwhelmed by awe. Her stomach remained twisted into nervous knots as guards fell into a tight formation around her, blocking off any possible escape, but the beauty of the interior demanded appreciation. Everything was smooth and flowing, floors and walls and ceilings merging seamlessly without a single right angle, and whoever had decorated the residence had been a mammal of exquisite taste.

Procerus's back was to Eni, his clasped paws visible, and his attention didn't waver for an instant as his procession made its way past a collection of five thousand year old fertility idols and a bas-relief carving of Abraxas staring down an enormous pair of eyes. The wolverine didn't say a word as he walked up an elegantly curved staircase and stopped in front of a massive set of double doors.

Two soldiers wearing Terregor City Guard uniforms, a lynx and a stag, split off from the others, pulling them open and then standing at rigid attention outside the room. Procerus strode in leaving Eni no choice but to follow; she could feel the breath of the soldiers on the back of her neck. Once she was inside, the doors swung shut, closing so quietly that Eni almost couldn't hear the sound of the latch engaging.

The Lord Warden's study was a room as beautiful as the rest of the residence; the walls formed a perfect heptagon and blended cleanly into the floor and ceiling. Low shelves filled with curios lined the walls under tall and narrow windows letting in the light of morning, and a large desk dominated the room. It was carved from stone that rose from the floor as organically as a plant, and Procerus took a seat behind it, gesturing for Eni to sit at a chair that stood in front of it.

The desk was neatly arranged, a typewriter and a cipher engine in the wolverine's easy reach next to stacks of folders filled with papers. To his right, there was a silver tray with a squat ceramic pot and two matching mugs on it, and Procerus picked up the pot. He poured until each mug was full of steaming green tea, the pleasantly rich smell filling the air. Procerus took one of the drinks, gesturing for Eni to take the other.

”There's an old saying about tea in Karanor,” he said, speaking for the first time since greeting her at his front door, ”Or there was, at least. Perhaps you know it?”

He looked at Eni expectantly, and her skin crawled under her fur. The wolverine was unsettling in a way she hadn't anticipated, his every act feeling coldly calculated. ”Tea is best enjoyed with friends,” Eni said, and Procerus nodded.

”Quite so,” he replied, ”I would like us to be friends, Miss Siverets.”

”Friends?” Eni repeated, and Procerus nodded absently.

”There's no reason our goals can't align,” he said, ”Astrasa is an excellent tutor for sword fighting, or so I hear. If I instructed her to teach you magic…”

He smiled, his eyes remaining hard and emotionless. ”She'd comply,” he finished simply.

If the wolverine was telling the truth, his offer did at least confirm that he was the leader of the Archons. Not that it was in the very least tempting; Eni couldn't imagine trying to learn from the arrogant leopardess. 

She had no idea what to say, but Procerus seemed unperturbed, sipping delicately at his drink before setting it aside. Eni held her own in paws that felt frozen, painfully aware of the small bottle of sleeping draught pressing against her wrist and hidden by her sleeve.

If it hadn't been for the wolverine's intense stare it would have been the perfect opportunity to try adding a few drops to his mug, which was so close it was almost as though it was taunting her. Eni forced her eyes away from his beverage and set her own down too, feeling the tea slosh as her nerveless fingers trembled. ”I… I see,” she said, and Procerus nodded gravely.

”What do you think of my office, Miss Siverets?” he asked abruptly in a low and gravelly voice, ”It rather suits me, wouldn't you say?”

He gestured at one of the walls as he spoke, his scarred face quirking into something that fell just short of a smile, and Eni saw exactly what he meant. The wall he had indicated wasn't quite perfect; although the rest of the room looked to have been carved from a single massive block of stone, there was an enormous and obvious section that had been repaired. It looked as though the triangular segment had been hit by a blast from a brimstone battery and crudely fixed; the fragments had been cemented back into place but there was no mistaking the damage.

”If… If you say so,” Eni said, trying to keep her words even; sitting before the wolverine she found him utterly fathomless.

His mismatched eyes were pitiless, his ruined features betraying nothing more than mild interest. ”I do,” he said, his words as slow and precise as ever, ”There's a Nihian word for this sort of thing, I believe. Something about seeing the beauty in scars.”

The wolverine grimaced, half his mouth not moving. ”There is,” Eni replied, and her stomach felt full of ice water.

She had no idea what he was playing at, but all that mattered was stalling him for Tsar and the Archivist. ”Kintsukuroi,” she added, and Procerus grunted.

”Strange folk, the Nihians,” the wolverine said, ”Every farmer's a philosopher.”

He spoke as though they were in a beer hall, discussing cultural traditions, and he went on. ”I've started studying them. You're from the Nihuron Peninsula, or so I hear. The Houo Province, I believe?” he asked.

”That’s right,” Eni said cautiously, and Procerus leaned across his desk, resting his powerful paws on its surface.

”Curious,” he said, his head tilting first up and then down as he studied her carefully, ”Very curious. You came halfway across Aerodan to look for the Slayer. Spent years roaming the Cradle, searching for him. And then, when you've finally found him… Here you are. Alone.”

He settled back in his chair. ”Would you care to explain that?” he asked mildly.

”He…” Eni began, licking at her lips, ”He… Let me go.”

The words sounded pathetic to her own ears and Procerus sighed. ”I know very well that the Slayer didn't take you hostage,” he said, ”Would you care to try again?”

His voice was rough but quiet and somehow almost soft, and Eni swallowed hard. ”I wanted to talk to you,” she said, and the wolverine inclined his head to the side.

For an instant, only his dead eye regarded her, and the vial in her sleeve felt almost as though it was burning to be used. Eni began to bring her paws together, but before she could even touch the cold glass of the bottle the wolverine was staring at her head on.

Eni resisted the urge to swallow again, primly lacing her fingers together and resting her paws atop the desk's surface. ”Better,” he said, ”But that's not the whole truth. Did he cast you aside?”

Eni's heart began pounding in her chest as Procerus practically crooned his words, staring at her as he went on. ”No, that's not it. You're a distraction,” he said, and Eni flinched.

The wolverine's sinister leer didn't quite widen, but Eni thought she saw satisfaction wash over his face. ”Is he going for Ulmior's Vault?” Procerus asked, taking another sip of his tea, and Eni stiffened as she felt her blunt nails digging into the backs of her paws.

Clearly, the Archivist's attempts at deceiving the Archons hadn't amounted to much, but there was no reason she couldn't try to keep misleading him. ”Maybe he is,” Eni blurted, and the wolverine considered her carefully for a moment before replacing his mug on the desk and replying.

”And how do you suppose he'll fair against Astrasa?” he asked, ”Especially while he's hauling a crippled old goat. Or has he left Kurlan behind somewhere?”

”Did the Woemaker tell you the truth?” Eni countered, raising her chin as she desperately tried to make her voice sound hard rather than terrified, ”Tsar fought her to a standstill. Twice.”

”A standstill,” Procerus repeated flatly, ”Not a very good showing for the most powerful mage the world has ever seen. But then, he doesn't use magic, does he?”

”He didn't need to,” Eni said firmly, ”Not to deal with her.

She put every possible ounce of distaste she possibly could into her last word, but she couldn't deny her own feelings. Procerus seemed to sense her worry, and his terrible features brightened, his claws drumming against the surface of his desk. ”We shall see,” he said softly, ”Perhaps Astrasa will finally force it out of him.”

”Force his magic out? Is that why you sent those fanatics to my apartment?” Eni asked, and a lopsided frown crossed the wolverine's face.

”Fanatics?” Procerus asked slowly, ”How peculiar to hear you use that word.”

The wolverine turned in his chair until only the intact portion of his face was visible, his good eye sweeping the room. ”I would have thought you, of all mammals, would understand. What else could you call your obsession with the Slayer?” he asked, his harsh voice sounding almost gentle, ”What made you go on, year after year?”

”I'm not obsessed,” Eni said, and Procerus uttered a barking laugh.

”Really, Miss Siverets,” he said, ”If you’re trying to buy my time, you’re doing a poor job of it.”

There had been the slightest hint of a warning tone in his voice, his sharp teeth flashing in his mouth. ”I… I had to find him,” Eni said, fumbling over her words, ”I needed someone to teach me to control my magic.”

Procerus made a wordless noise of acknowledgement deep in his throat. ”How very rapacious,” he said, ”You were after nothing but the best.”

A retort instantly came to Eni's mind but she bit back the words instead of saying them; the wolverine's mood had a dangerous feel to it, a throbbing and menacing pulse underscoring his words. She could have said that he was one to talk, considering how he had decorated his office with what could only be artifacts plundered from Ulmior's Vault. She couldn't even guess at the value of the objects he had on display, ranging from books to vellum illustrations to vases, but she couldn't seem to drag her eyes away from Procerus.

”Nevertheless, it is selfish,” the wolverine continued, ”Do you really think the Slayer…”

He paused for a moment, seeming to be trying to find the right word. ”Belongs to you?” he asked.

”Tsar belongs to the world,” Eni replied, the comfortingly familiar words of The Seven Labors springing to mind, but Procerus shook his head.

”He's shirked that responsibility long enough, hasn’t he?” the wolverine said, ”Aerodan needs him more than ever. More than you do. Mammals willing to die to make that happen aren’t fanatics. They’re doing what needs to be done.”

”Why… Why us?” Eni whispered.

She had meant to speak more loudly, but her throat felt as though it was closing up, and even forcing out the words she had managed to say had cost her a terrible effort. She was overcome with the awful sense that something horrible was going to happen, and that sense only deepened as Procerus stood, pacing to the middle of his fine office.

Eni turned, unwilling to let him out of her sights, and as she watched the wolverine's face twisted with distaste. ”Do you imagine I seek the Slayer for a campaign of conquest that would make Wordermund himself weep with envy?” he asked mockingly, ”Do you suppose I seek a great sorceress as my bride to conceive a dynasty?”

Eni felt as though she had swallowed something prickly, her blood pulsing fearfully through her veins as she stared at him. ”I'm not,” he said, but the words were far from comforting.

His face was a mask of pure menace, and then he suddenly turned away, his back to her as he looked at one of the shelves lining the room. ”Come here, Miss Siverets,” he said, still not looking at her, ”There's something I want to show you.”

Eni's paws trembled uncontrollably, but she couldn't let the opportunity pass her by. She managed to pull the small bottle free of her sleeve, tearing out the cork and dumping half the vial into the wolverine's tea. She almost splattered the desk with stray drops of the sleeping draught, but she managed to keep her aim steady enough to quickly recork the bottle and hid it once more.

She staggered to her feet, which felt completely numb, and cautiously padded over to where Procerus stood. He gave no sign whatsoever at being worried she might try attacking him; he was utterly still, his arrogant certainty written in his very posture. His paws were loosely clasped behind his back but if he had a weapon hidden under his fine clothes she couldn't see it. Eni had the sudden mad urge to try overpowering him as she came up behind him, but she knew she couldn't. The wolverine was slightly shorter than she was, but much broader, his limbs thick with muscle.

Instead, she stood by his side and looked at the ruined half of his face. His ears flicked in her direction and he wordlessly gestured at what was on display before them.

What they were standing in front of was a series of views of a monster on an enormous sheet of tattered and yellowed parchment, but it didn't look like any of the illustrations in The Codex Monstrum. The creature was displayed more like an engineering drawing of a mill or a pump, its scabrous flesh peeled aside to reveal its loathsome inner workings. The being it showed was vaguely like a rajah, but far too large and with too many limbs. Its rat-like head split into three triangular jaws filled with wickedly curved teeth. Its legs were thick near its body and then tapered off into almost spindly extensions that flared at their ends into horrible grasping claws. Dense text accompanied the drawings, blandly describing every detail of the monster's biology in impeccable Classical Word, but there was one word that caught Eni's eye before all the others.

Theurgy.

Eni's eyes raced across the sentence it was in and her mouth fell open as she read the words. The release of theurgy from a slain—

The parchment had faded unevenly, the next few words completely invisible, but she caught the thread of how it continued. —similar such alternate sources.

Eni's mind reeled as the possibilities occurred to her. There was no question that the monster she was looking at was the same thing stalking Terregor and violently murdering its citizens, but there was more to it than that. She desperately scanned the parchment, searching for more references to theurgy, but the text had become almost entirely unreadable even as the illustrations retained most of their luster.

But from what was there, Eni was certain that there were instructions about capturing theurgy from monsters, exactly as she and Tsar had seen. The mage who had forged Astrasa's psycryst had to be responsible, but as she turned to face Procerus again she was left more baffled than ever. The wolverine had claimed that the leopardess reported to him, but Tsar had been certain that he wasn't a mage. ”You grasp the significance, I see,” Procerus said, looking to her, and he beckoned her back over to his desk.

Eni took one last glance at the illustration, which didn't have any sort of title or name for the creature, and then followed Procerus back. He picked up his mug of tea, cradling it in one paw as he used the other to motion for her to sit down. ”Tsar will slay it,” Eni said.

”Certainly, he will,” Procerus said, idly running one finger around the rim of his mug.

”Along with the rest of your Archons,” Eni said as fiercely as she could, and Procerus uttered a harsh laugh.

”Archons? Do you hear yourself? Are you quite sure you're not obsessed?” he asked, his tea almost to his lips, ”Your faith in him… I don't believe even my ‘fanatics’ were as devoted to our cause.”

Eni desperately tried not to look at his drink, staring instead into the wolverine's eyes. ”And what is that cause?” she asked, and her heart sank when Procerus gently set down his mug.

”Ensuring tomorrow comes,” he said mildly, ”What point is there in conquering territory and fathering children otherwise?”

”You're lying,” Eni protested, but even as she spoke she knew he was speaking the truth.

”Compared to our purpose, there are very few prices too high,” Procerus replied, as though she hadn't said anything.

He paused a moment, allowing his callous words to sink in, and then he picked up his mug again. ”Including the life of a friend,” he said, staring at Eni over the rim of his mug.

”I—” Eni began, terror and hope warring within her chest, but Procerus cut her off.

”It's what you were created to do,” he hissed, ”Your birth drew the Slayer back into the world, but that was all you were meant for. Nothing more, although…”

Take a sip, Eni thought desperately, her insides writhing as the temperature in the office seemed to drop, Please, just take a sip.

Procerus raised the mug to his twisted mouth, and then suddenly paused. ”I’m afraid my tea's gone cold,” he said, and Eni's eyes widened with horror as he flung the drink aside.

He knows.

Rather than a spray of liquid it was as though he had thrown a pawful of green sleet into the air. Her breath left her as the glittering particles of frozen tea flashed and danced in the light streaming in through the windows like falling snow.

”Tell me something,” Procerus said, his one good eye boring into Eni’s face, ”Why didn’t the Slayer just kill you when you first met?”

Eni gaped at him, her stomach churning frightfully as she heard the same question she had asked Tsar on the ferry.

”He—” Eni began, but as she looked into Procerus’s twisted face her mind went blank, ”He's…” 

”He's not just the Slayer,” Eni blurted, the memory of what Tsar had said on the ferry escaping her.

Procerus spoke almost before the last word had left her mouth, his face hard and his voice harsh. ”I suppose not. The Slayer wouldn't have sent you here. Mister Tsar did. Why?”

”I… I chose to come here. Willingly,” Eni said, her vision starting to throb in time with her racing heart.

”Yes,” Procerus replied thoughtfully, ”Just like he was willing to sacrifice you if only it meant he wouldn't have to use a drop of his loathed magic. So I ask again, Miss Siverets, why didn't he just kill you?”

Eni searched desperately for the answer, but her certainty was abandoning her. There had to be something, something Tsar had done or said that proved his character beyond any doubt. She couldn't remember, and she thought back to the ferry.

What had Tsar said?

She felt utterly numb, trying to pull for a memory that wouldn’t come.

I should have.

She heard Tsar say it but refused to believe it. It wasn't right; he had never spoken those words. He had never looked at her with remorseless eyes, contempt etched in every line of his face. Tsar had been the one to teach her magic when no one else could, the one who had tried teaching her to find her own personal high water marks.

”Onami,” Eni whispered, struggling to recall the lesson, but the wolverine's barking laugh cut through her mind like a knife.

”Nihuron babbling won't help you,” he said, ”You know what he said.”

The day on the ferry flashed before Eni's eyes, the same bitter sense of disappointment welling up in her chest once more.

I should have.

Tsar's voice came again, louder and stronger than before, burning like a brand pressed into her flesh.

I believed in you.

The words came in Eni's own voice and she squeezed her eyes shut so hard that sparks of color exploded before them. ”No, I didn't say that,” she whispered.

”What didn't you say?” Procerus asked.

The words came unbidden, no matter how Eni tried to force them down.

I believed in you more than I’ve ever believed in anything. I’d rather be dead if it was all a lie.

Eni shook her head, fighting her recollection, but she could almost see the ferry and Tsar before her. She desperately opened her eyes, trying to focus on what she could see, but Procerus seemed to swim in and out of focus, as insubstantial as a mirage. ”I…” she said faintly, ”No. I… I mean something.”

You chose a lie over the truth.

Tsar's contemptuous words hit her like a hammer and Eni couldn't fight it anymore. Her body burned as though she had fallen into an icy lake, her breath becoming visible, and a terrible chill seeped into the room. Eni gasped as she clutched herself, but the cold was all encompassing, reaching down into her bones and pulling at her.

”Not anymore. Guards!” Procerus said, bellowing the command, and even as the wolverine stood she could feel the power within her rising.

The trail's gone cold.

Eni's voice whispered in her ears, and snow started to drift down from the ceiling. The view out the windows grew hazy as the glass frosted over, and a moment later there was a terrible cracking sound as they shattered. Rimes of hoarfrost began spreading down the legs of the chair Eni sat on, all warmth abandoning her. She was colder than she had ever been in her life, and a biting wind howled through the room. Procerus staggered back, squinting while he held up his paws to protect his face, but the fur on his arms was growing lighter as he froze.

All the color being drained out of the office, blank whiteness filling it as everything softened.

Always cold.

Eni couldn't feel her arms and legs as she collapsed from her chair, falling to the floor, but it wasn't a floor anymore.



It was the ground, frozen to the hardness of stone, and as Eni looked up she was no longer surrounded by walls. The ceiling had also vanished, leaving behind nothing but a grimly gray sky devoid of the sun and its heat. Eni glanced around wildly, but there was almost nothing to see. She was in a wasteland of snow, the horizon stretching off around her without a single landmark to navigate by. Procerus was before her, his ugly face twisted in anger and pain as he bellowed something, but Eni couldn't hear him, not over the voice that filled her ears.

He gave you up, and now you’ll never find him again.

”Quiet!” Eni screamed, but the wind tore her voice away, robbing it of every ounce of strength.

Eni wanted to stand, wanted to press on, but she couldn't. Her body was nothing but agony, every breath coming painfully and her limbs completely numb.

How can you be so weak?

She was suddenly and horribly sure of where she was, the pieces falling into place as she stared up at Procerus. The unremarkable expanse of land was in the League's northern reaches, the frigid and inhospitable place that should have been the safest way to avoid their military patrols. But the Archons had no nation or borders. They were inevitable, and they had hunted her down, an annoyance to be destroyed.

Procerus's lips moved, and Eni was dully aware that the words she heard didn't align, but that was insignificant. It was irrelevant; his speech at last penetrated her own fearful thoughts.

”Enough, rabbit,” the wolverine said, his face filled with loathing, ”The promised hour is upon us. You will not interfere.”

Procerus snapped his fingers and Eni felt herself being hauled upright by two mammals. She knew she should have resisted, but she couldn't. She didn't have the strength to fight, the arms of the Archons around hers feeling impossibly strong.

Procerus drew a knife from his thick winter clothes, the blade throwing blinding beads of light into Eni's eyes. ”Hold her steady,” he ordered, and his mouth still moved utterly independently of his words.

It was peculiar, but Eni didn't have the energy to think about it. Her mind felt hollowed out and emptied as she watched the approaching wolverine, his arm raised and the knife pointed right at her heart. Eni's head lolled to the side, and she caught a glimpse of one of the Archons holding her. He was a lynx wearing simple robes, his feline ears pressed back against his head as he regarded her fearfully. His lips moved but no sound emerged but the ceaseless shrill cry of the wind, his yellow eyes wide.

He almost looked like Lieutenant Sammar, back in Ctesiphon, but he was younger and scrawnier, likely no more than eighteen or nineteen. It didn't change anything, but Eni didn't want to look back at Procerus or feel his knife piercing her chest.

The wolverine didn't let her choose.

He violently grabbed her head with the paw not holding the knife, twisting it painfully until she was staring at his furious face. He soundlessly roared a single word, and Eni frowned.

Stop.

It was a peculiar thing for him to try saying; perhaps she had simply imagined it. Stop what? Eni knew she didn't have control over anything. She had already yielded to the Archons, and her control over her magic had abandoned her long ago. How many years had it been since she had been separated from Tsar? Eni couldn't remember; every day had blended into the next after they had parted ways, and no matter how she searched for him there was never again a sign of the wolf.

What was it he had last said to her?

It felt oddly important, and Eni dug through her memory. Procerus was still holding her by the chin, and he struck her across the face with the flat of the knife in his other paw. The pain was enormous, stars flashing across her vision as her head moved. She collided with the lynx holding her with a tooth-rattling lurch, and for an instant the young Archon was dressed in the bright uniform of the Terregor City Guard.

The moment passed as quickly as it came, but Eni's frown didn't. It had been ages since she had last been in Terregor to see the soldiers guarding it. The last ones she had seen had been…

Had been…

Eni felt on the cusp of something, but she couldn't focus on it. Her magic had torn itself free of her control, biting fingers of wind reaching hungrily out for Procerus and his Archons. It seemed to slip around Procerus, focusing on his guards with even greater intensity, and the wolverine's good eye widened. The Archons holding Eni choked, dropping her go as they clutched at their throats. The impact with the hard-packed snow jolted Eni's body, and she watched as the mammals gasped for breath.

It wouldn't change anything, she knew. Her power would kill them and she'd be left alone to die in the wastelands, too weak to move. The lynx fell next to her, his eyes pleadingly locking onto hers as he gasped for air, and Eni wondered dispassionately how he had become an Archon. Maybe he really had been a member of Terregor's City Guard, but that was irrelevant.

All that mattered was the wind, leaching Eni's strength away as it pulled the air out of the Archons' lungs. The magic was almost beautiful, in a way; Eni's vision danced and sparkled with impossible colors, and it was almost as though there were walls around her, invisible walls that shimmered in and out of existence. One of the walls wasn't quite like the others, though; its perfection was marred by a repair.

Kintsukuroi.

How long had it been since she had thought in her native tongue? Eni couldn't remember, the Nihian word feeling strangely exotic as it occurred to her. It wasn't as though the walls were really there, anyway. They were nothing but a figment of her imagination, something mildly interesting to see before she froze.

As she watched, the walls vanished again, the snow that the wind whipped up passing through where they would have been. Eni glanced at the dying lynx and felt suddenly ashamed. ”I'm sorry,” she mumbled, ”Don't… mean to…”

Eni's strength was abandoning her as her magic pulled harder at her, the wind growing ever louder and stronger. The lynx's lips moved, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth as he grabbed her paw and tried choking out a word.

Please.

The word appeared in Eni's mind in a voice she had never heard before, a male voice still soft with youth and inexperience. The lynx's thoughts pressed against hers, as weak and feeble as a single match attempting to light up a cathedral, but she felt him. She could sense his fear, bright and sharp, but there was so much more to him than that. He was full of pride, honored beyond reason to wear the uniform of the Terregor City Guard, and—

Eni forced the wind away from his neck.

She had no idea how she did it; there was no time for a recognizable thought. The wind simply moved, tearing away from all three of the other mammals and striking the hazy and indistinct wall with crushing force.

There was a sound like an earthquake, before everything fell silent, and Eni gaped mutely at a sight that defied belief. She was still on the ground in a frigid expanse, snow sucking the warmth from her body. The sky was still a dull gray, oppressively hanging overhead. Procerus, the lynx, and the other Archon were still on the ground nearby, feebly stirring.

But there was a crack in reality.

It was a massive triangular wedge hanging just a few inches above the ground, and through it Eni could see the warm light of early morning in a familiar city. She could even hear the bustle of crowds and the overlapping babble of mammals talking, the sounds like a balm. Eni forced herself to crawl forward, unable to muster the strength to stand, and she gripped at the edges of the crack. It almost looked like a thick wall of dense stone, and as she pulled herself up and into it she spared a single glance back.

Procerus's chest rose and fell slowly, both his eyes closed, and the lynx looked just as unconscious. The other Archon, a muscular stag, was nearby and weakly trying to stand. He no longer wore nondescript robes; both he and the lynx were dressed in City Guard uniforms.

Eni tore her eyes away, focusing her attention on the hole she was pulling herself through, and as her head passed through—

There was a nauseating feeling, as though she was being torn apart, and her eyes exploded with blinding colors. Her stomach lurched as she was suddenly in free fall, her arms and legs windmilling as there was nothing to support her.

”Someone jumped!” the shrill voice of a bewildered bystander screamed, and there were gasps and cries of alarm.

She still couldn't see, and she blinked furiously, trying to clear her vision, but as her sight returned she only had enough time to see something blue and shining before all the air was knocked from her lungs.

Eni's teeth ground together as she slammed into the water of a canal, her ears filling and blotting out all sound. Eni reached desperately upwards, too weak to raise her arms, glittering bubbles of air streaming away from her nose and into her field of view. As they passed, they began to freeze, the water around her did the same, sharp shards of ice painfully spreading out from Eni’s limbs.

Eni's lungs burned as she watched the sky, so close and yet so far away as it became hazy behind a layer of milky ice, and she tried kicking.

Her tired legs barely moved, the frigid water sapping her strength, but she felt the tips of her fingers clear the water and she kicked again until her head was above the waves. Eni greedily sucked in air, her temples throbbing with the beginning of a terrible headache as she glanced around. She was in the canal that ran close to the Lord Warden's residence, which stood six stories above the water level. A crowd had gathered on the opposite bank, some of them gaping up at the damage to the building, until they began fleeing. 

Enormous hailstones were raining down from the sky, chunks of ice the size of Eni’s fists exploding as they hit the pavement. The water of the canal was a raging torrent, a howling wind blowing across the surface, and Eni knew she was responsible.

Eni desperately searched within herself to stop the mayhem, but she found no strength left to use. It was all she could do to float along the surging and freezing waters, looking on in dazed amazement at what she had done to the Lord Warden’s residence.

On the top floor there was a massive section of wall that was simply gone, the repairs having given way under some powerful onslaught. The building’s tile roof was shattering and coming apart as it was pelted with hail, ceramic shards flying dangerously.

”Stop,” Eni mumbled, reaching for the power inside of her, but it was beyond her control, pulled completely free, ”Please… Stop.”

”You have to,” a voice came suddenly, and she felt something strong grasp her from under her armpits. She cried out in alarm, her eyes widening in terror, and she was pulled free of the water and onto one of the narrow banks of the canal on the same side as the ruined residence. Eni weakly raised her paws, but what met her eyes wasn't Procerus or one of his Archons.

It was Tsar.

His thick tail was still wrapped around Eni, and as he let her go she lost her balance and fell into his arms.

”Breathe, Eni,” he urged, grasping her sodden paws in his and bringing her close, ”Breathe.”

His pale eyes stared into hers and she tried matching her breaths to his, staring at the wolf in mute wonder. Eni could feel his heart through his fingers, pulsing steadily, and her own slowed to match. It was as though his warmth was flowing into her very core with every beat, dispelling the savage cold from the inside out.

The furious deluge of hail slackened, the pieces of ice hitting the pavement nearby first getting smaller and then turning into a misty rain, and the howling of the wind gave way to a gentle breeze.

”Tsar,” Eni said, and she couldn’t support herself anymore.

She fell forward into his chest, and her voice sounded feeble as she tried to keep speaking, ”You… You came for me.”

The wolf's warm and musky smell filled her nose, but she had to say it, her voice full of wonder. ”Yes,” he said quietly, and Eni felt helpless tears stream down her face as sobs wracked her body, ”Never should have left.”

”I thought… I thought…” she began, but she couldn’t finish, her ears filled with unfamiliar voices, overlapping and excited as mammals began cautiously walking back out from under cover.

Tsar suddenly lifted Eni and took off running. She couldn't see, her head buried against his neck, but the sounds of the crowd faded as he took off. ”I'm…” Eni yawned, her eyelids feeling terribly heavy, ”Tired.”

”Rest,” Tsar said, speaking the word as though he wasn't running at full tilt while carrying her.

Eni felt herself bouncing up and down, the motion as soothing as a lullaby. 

”Get the key?” Eni mumbled, but speaking cost such a tremendous effort she could barely manage it.

”We'll talk when we're back in the tower,” Tsar whispered, and Eni nuzzled her head closer into the hollow formed by his neck and shoulder.

His fur was amazingly soft there, reassuringly warm against her closed eyes. ”You'll… be there?” Eni asked hopefully, and Tsar's answer was immediate.

”Always.”

If he said anything more, Eni didn't hear it; she was beyond the reach of words as she drifted off to sleep.












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