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Chapter 52: The Shadow of Chaos

Updated: Mar 23





Eni was falling.

The ground was terribly far below her, the familiar plaza surrounding the Terraces of Gorin looking impossibly small, and she felt a sickening lurch in the pit of her stomach as she plummeted. She cried out, her arms squeezing rigidly tight, and her descent suddenly stopped. Eni blinked, her heart in her throat, and she realized she was clinging to something, her chest pressed close to a warm and reassuring presence.

”T—Tsar?” Eni asked, looking up and finding herself staring at his face.

”You're safe,” he said quietly, and Eni thought there was concern written across his features as he peered back into her eyes, ”Ledge gave way.”

He gestured with his head, which seemed to be the only limb he had free. His tail was wrapped around her body, helping to hold her steady against him, and the claws of both his paws had gouged long scrapes in the wall of the tower, his legs bent and braced against it. They were nearly fifteen stories above the ground, and Eni deliberately chose not to look down, instead glancing up to where he had indicated.

She could see where a narrow piece of stonework, no more than a foot wide and elegantly carved, had crumbled away, and Eni realized what the wolf had been doing. Rather than attempting to get past the guards at the front door again, Tsar was simply climbing the building, doubtlessly making his way toward a window.

”How do you feel?” Tsar asked, his voice low and calm, and Eni almost laughed hysterically.

There was nothing in his words that betrayed the slightest bit of anxiety for his own precarious position even though all that held him in place was the strength in his fingers. It was drizzling rain and the stone looked horribly damp and slick, but even as a buffeting wind blew past Tsar's position didn't shift by so much as an inch.

”I'll be fine,” she said, and to her amazement it didn't feel like a lie.

Her entire body was sore, as though she had practiced with her trident for a week straight, and there was a slight throbbing pain in her head that felt centered a few inches behind her eyes. She felt tired and worn out but somehow not drowsy, and Tsar nodded. ”Good. Be easier with you awake,” he said, ”Hold tight.”

Eni felt him shift his balance back ever so slightly, and as she ensured that her arms were locked around his neck and shoulders he suddenly pushed himself off from the wall in an enormous jump. A moment later he was scrabbling his way up the Terraces, his fingers and toes unerringly finding purchase as he made his ascent. The wolf seemed to have established a rhythm; Eni wasn't sure she could have raced up a staircase as quickly as he was climbing.

He didn't say anything more, and Eni didn't want to distract him so she held her own tongue, reflecting on what had happened before she woke up. The memory of what she had seen in Procerus's office felt burned into her mind, and she sighed.

”What's wrong?” Tsar asked, not even pausing for the slightest instant as he smoothly maneuvered them around a protruding part of the tower, and Eni considered the question for a moment before answering.

”I'm sorry,” she said, and the wolf made a wordless questioning sound.

”You had to save me,” Eni said, ”Again.”

”Did well yourself,” Tsar observed, but she shook her head vehemently before remembering that he couldn't see the gesture with his attention on what was above them.

”No I didn't,” Eni replied, ”I would have drowned in that canal or been killed by a hailstone or… or f—frozen solid. Don't you see? I couldn't control my power alone.”

She heard her fear and frustration in her own voice, but Tsar's response was immediate. ”Can't always rely on yourself,” he said simply.

You did,” Eni countered, ”For years.”

He came to a sudden stop, locking himself against the smooth wall, and looked down at Eni until their eyes met. ”Wouldn't be here now without you,” he said, holding her gaze for just a moment longer than it took him to say the words, and then his head tilted up and he began climbing once more.

Eni was left with nothing to say, and after a few more minutes Tsar had reached a large window. With his usual grace he reached out one arm and effortlessly opened it, and then he slipped inside so quietly that Eni could barely hear the sound of his feet hitting the floor. Tsar gently lowered Eni until she was more or less standing upright, still braced against him, and asked in a low whisper, ”Can you walk?”

Eni frowned, testing her weight, and when it felt as though her legs wouldn't give out from under her she nodded. Tsar's tail unfurled from around her, its tip reaching out and silently pulling the window closed, and then it beckoned for her to follow him down the hall. Eni strained her hearing but couldn't hear anyone else; all that met her ears was the gently murmuring splash of water running through the nearest fountains.

Despite how quiet the Terraces of Gorin were, Eni still followed Tsar's lead, creeping along in silence until they reached a tapestry depicting the Mother with her face too brilliantly radiant to see and her oldest children as mere infants nursing at her generous breasts. Where the Mother's sacred milk had dribbled off their chins the ground beneath her feet had blossomed with vivid flowers and vines, the bold colors and complexly knotted threads marking the piece as an authentic Queriston, but when Tsar swept the tapestry aside Eni couldn't see any obvious seams or latches.

The wolf carefully ran his paws across the bricks of the wall, and when his fingers pressed an unremarkable one about four feet off the floor it slid inward with a soft metallic click. The hidden door swung suddenly open, virtually silent on its concealed hinges, and Tsar held it for Eni before following her in. The opening glided slowly shut behind them, plunging them into complete darkness, and no matter how Eni strained her eyes she couldn't see anything.

”Don't have a lantern,” Tsar said softly, ”Grab my paw.”

Eni groped in the darkness until her fingers were enveloped by Tsar's, the familiar roughness of his palm beating steadily in time with his heart. The wolf gently pulled at her arm, and she followed. ”Is the Archivist alright? Do you know how to get back to him?” Eni asked, quietly but urgently.

”Should be,” Tsar said, and even though she couldn't see him at all she felt his shrug through the motion of his arm, ”Just have to follow my scent.”

She could hear him sniffing for a moment, and then he was walking slowly as he retraced his steps. ”Careful,” he said, ”Stairs.”

With her free paw, Eni felt around until she found the railing, but even with Tsar's warning she still stumbled a bit on the first step. In the complete blackness, with no sounds but their own breath and pulses, the next few minutes felt like hours. As they kept going, Eni feeling herself getting winded, she eventually noticed that she could see again.

At first it wasn't much, just a faint glow that she almost thought was her imagination, but as they got closer she realized it was a crack of light coming from under a door, so thin that it was nothing more than a dim and flickering line. Tsar's features were hazy and gray in the feeble light, his eyes sapped of their usual brilliance, and as Eni watched he carefully reached for the wall. Eni inhaled sharply and held it, listening intently, but she heard only one mammal on the other side.

One mammal with a sluggishly beating heart and wet, raspy breathing.

As the concealed door into the Archivist's private sleeping chamber opened Eni braced herself for what she would see, but what met her eyes was far worse than she had imagined. The Archivist lay on the bed, his heavy robes of office stripped away to leave him wearing nothing more than a modest tunic, and he looked even frailer than he had when Eni had last seen him. His limbs trembled with each labored gasp for air, and his feverish eyes seemed to have sunk even more deeply into his skull, the flesh around them puffy and pallid underneath his fur. If it wasn't for the pillow underneath his head, Eni was sure he wouldn't have been able to look at her, his head tilted slightly to the side under the weight of his enormous horns.

”Eni,” he croaked, his wheezy voice barely more than a whisper, and there was none of the markhor's usual strength in his gaze as he looked at her, ”I'm… glad to see you.”

”Sir!” Eni cried, letting go of Tsar's paw as she raced over to the bed, ”Are you—”

The Archivist cut her off by feebly raising one gnarled hoof. ”I'll live… a little longer, at least,” he said, smiling faintly.

His lips were dry and cracked, and he coughed weakly as Eni delicately touched his shoulder. ”Rest,” she said gently, but he shook his head ponderously.

”No time,” the Archivist said, ”We must hurry, before…”

His body was suddenly overcome by a horrible hacking fit, and Eni grabbed a cup of water from his bedside, easing it to his lips and helping him drink once he regained control of himself. ”Before they catch up,” he said, and Eni turned to Tsar.

He had silently crossed the room and was immediately behind where she stood at the Archivist's bedside. ”Explain on the way down,” he said, offering Eni her satchel and trident.

She took her weapon and slung her pack on as Tsar carefully eased the Archivist off the mattress, cradling the markhor and his staff in both arms with no apparent effort. ”You have the key?” she asked, and Tsar nodded, the tip of his tail curling up around and tapping at one of the pouches strapped near its base.

Eni was about to ask if he had the half of Wordermund's lexicon they had already recovered, but she realized she didn't have to. She could hear it, making a faint sound like indiscernible voices, seemingly emanating from her satchel but also from within her own head. Tsar was already making his way toward the fireplace and the entrance to Gorin's Crypt that it hid, and Eni hurried after him.

”Was in Procerus's office,” Tsar said, even as his tail found the latch and opened the concealed door, ”Easy. Didn't need him to tell me which key.”

The Archivist craned his neck up at Eni. ”It was worth the trip,” the old markhor wheezed, ”Seeing him in action… Extraordinary.”

Eni shot Tsar a glance as she followed him to the staircase that spiraled down into the depths of the Terraces of Gorin. ”Avoided the guards,” he said, as though it had been utterly trivial, ”Lieren wasn't there.”

Eni had grabbed a lantern from the room, and she was glad to have it as they continued their descent; she felt as though her tired legs might have missed a step otherwise. ”She wasn't with Procerus, either,” Eni said thoughtfully, and Tsar's expression didn't change.

”She'll come,” he said, and Eni could hear his certainty.

She sighed, but she couldn't dispute it. The leopardess might not have as sharp a sense of smell as Tsar, but her barghest at least came close. And even if Fenris wasn't with her, Eni supposed the Woemaker's own keen awareness, honed through her magic, might be enough to track Tsar even through the rain. A frown suddenly crossed Eni's face as a thought struck her, and she continued down the stairs until she was sure she could articulate it. ”The key…” Eni said slowly, ”You could smell its power, right?”

She directed her question at Tsar, and when he nodded she went on. ”The Archivist said Astrasa was the one who confiscated it along with his other keys. Shouldn't she have known it was magic?”

A frown crossed the Archivist's face as he seemed to consider something he hadn't thought of before, but Tsar's response was almost immediate. ”Maybe,” he said, shrugging his shoulders even as he kept the markhor in his arms steady, ”Didn't know where it'd go.”

”I suppose,” Eni said reluctantly, ”But… maybe she wanted us to take the key so she would know.”

”Possible,” Tsar said, and the Archivist managed to add, ”She's not to be underestimated.”

”We'll be ready for her, though,” Eni said, trying to sound confident, ”Once we have the rest of the lexicon and I can start transla—”

”No!”

Tsar cut Eni off sharply as he came to a stop, but in the flickering light of the lantern what she saw written across his face wasn't anger. ”It's too dangerous,” he added, his voice softer, but his face was still set in a worried expression as he looked up at her from his position further down the stairs.

Eni opened her mouth and then closed it again, her protest dying before she could speak it. She had assumed they could harness the power of whatever secrets were locked with The Lamentations of Nergora, but from Tsar's grave features she was suddenly afraid of what they might find. ”The Visitor you saw wants you for something,” Tsar said slowly, ”Mind or body. Maybe both. Lexicon might be her way in.”

She could almost see the Visitor before her, a perfect duplicate except for her pregnancy, and Eni wondered if something really was growing in the strange being's womb. Or, if Tsar was right, what the Visitor might want with Eni herself. The blood in her veins seemed to freeze as she looked back at Tsar and nodded slowly. ”Are… are you saying we have to destroy the lexicons, then?” she asked.

The Archivist looked aghast at the suggestion even though he lacked the strength to do more than remain limp in Tsar's arms, and Eni was sure her face was a mirror of her mentor's. The idea of destroying any book was loathsome, but to destroy something crafted by Wordermund himself was almost blasphemy. To Eni's surprise, Tsar shook his head. ”Can't,” he said, and he started walking down the stairs again, calling back over his shoulder, ”Tried already.”

”You couldn't destroy the one in my satchel?” Eni asked, and Tsar grunted an acknowledgement.

”Wouldn't burn. Or melt. Or dent. Or tear,” he said, his voice clipped as he ran through all the possibilities, ”Must take magic.”

Eni's mind reeled as she considered what he had said. ”But if we can't get rid of them…” she said, ”What can we do?”

”Can't stop,” Tsar said simply, ”Not 'til we find a way.”

Eni followed the wolf in silence as a future seemed to unfurl itself before her eyes. She could picture a life on the run, endlessly crossing Aerodan to stay one step ahead of the Archons as they kept the precious lexicons safe. Eni could see it so clearly, never being able to stop for long in a single spot before having to move on once more. It would be endless hardship, trudging across the vast expanses between cities and nations with nothing more than what could fit in a pack. The idea was so close to what the Lotophagi had forced into her mind that it should have been terrifying. It should have conjured up the same fear of stumbling to a stop in a frozen wasteland, unable to go any further. And yet somehow it didn't, and Eni realized she knew why.

Tsar would be with her.

They wouldn't have anything but each other, but that almost felt as though it would be enough. He could continue teaching her to control her power as she kept teaching him how to read, and however long it took Eni was sure they could figure something out.

The thought didn't quite put a smile on Eni's face, not when they still had to recover the other half of what Wordermund had crafted. But it made her feel a touch of optimism that burned brightly in her stomach, and she nearly missed what Tsar said when he spoke again. ”What happened with Procerus?” he asked quietly, and Eni almost shook her head to clear it as she turned her focus back to him.

As they continued their descent, Eni did her best to explain everything that had occurred in the Lord Warden's residence, doing her best not to leave anything out. Tsar listened without interruption, and the Archivist rarely interjected, obviously too weak to do much more than take in her words. When Eni got to her description of the strange diagram the wolverine had shown her, Eni paused.

”Have you ever seen a monster like that?” she asked, once she had told Tsar every detail she could recall.

The wolf considered the question. ”I…” he said hesitantly, his head tilting to one side and then the other, ”Never.”

”How peculiar,” the Archivist murmured, his eyes dull behind his spectacles.

”I just wish I knew why he wanted me to see it,” Eni said.

”Testing you, maybe,” Tsar replied, but his eyes had taken on a distant and faraway look.

Eni frowned uneasily but went on, although there wasn't much more to tell. She wrapped up her recitation shortly before they at last reached the bottom of the stairs, and despite what Tsar had told her on their way to the Archivist's bedchambers she still felt a flush of shame at not being strong enough to control her power.

”You did well, Eni,” the Archivist croaked, his voice a dry rasp, and Tsar nodded his agreement.

As they reentered the little room, Tsar's tail deftly unbuttoned the pouch he had placed the key in and pulled it free, its tip grasping it delicately. Eni gestured for Tsar to let her look at it and he dropped it in her waiting palm.

The key didn't seem particularly impressive. It was made of brass, with a rather mundane-looking set of teeth at one end. The only thing even slightly unusual about it was the bow, which had a faceted chunk of rose quartz set into it, worn smooth by all the paws and hooves it had passed through. Eni might have asked Tsar if he was sure it was the right key, but as she held it, she could hear a faint humming.

It was as though she was standing several blocks away from a harp being plucked at random, sweet but chaotic sounds drifting into her mind. Eni took a look from the key to the wall where the door was hidden and strode forward, suddenly knowing what she had to do. Eni searched for the squat pyramidal lump of crystal set in the solid stone and then turned the key the wrong way around, touching its own piece of quartz to the matching one.

Eni felt a sudden jolt that ran through her arm and to her toes, a flash of warmth passing through her as a tiny pink spark flashed from the key to the wall. The floor started rumbling under her feet, but a hidden door didn't open.

The wall did.

The lump of quartz embedded in it twisted, growing larger as it did, and as the crystal grew it started pressing inward. First it was the size of her fist, and then her torso, and then her arms outstretched as a tunnel with sharply defined edges pushed a sloping path downward. Eni glanced in, lifting her lantern high, and the light was refracted endlessly from the perfect geometric forms of a thin layer of pink crystal.

”I'll go first,” Tsar said blandly as the shaking of the floor stopped; the way he spoke it sounded as though he had found the tunnel's sudden formation no more remarkable than the door to an inn opening.

He walked past her, his tail brushing against her leg, and began picking his way down slowly as he kept the Archivist balanced. Eni spared one last look of amazement before she went after him, going as slowly as she possibly could. The crystal under their feet was perfectly smooth and offered absolutely no grip, and to make it worse the downward slope was significant.

If it hadn't been for the way that some of the facets were very nearly level, forming crude steps, Eni was sure she would have fallen over and slid to the bottom, but she managed to stay upright as they pressed onward. Eni considered putting out her lantern; its light was dazzling in the confined space, sometimes almost blinding as it bounced back into her eyes, but since the alternative seemed far worse she simply squinted.

When they finally reached the end of the crystalline passageway, Eni had no idea how far below the surface they were but felt sure they had to be underneath a canal. They were in a vast but narrow cavern, its ceiling too far overhead for the lantern to illuminate it, but the floor was covered in freezing water up to her ankles and she could hear distant dripping. The nearest wall was composed of enormous blocks joined together without mortar but fit together so precisely that the seams were hair-thin, and as Eni trudged forward the cavern grew wider.

There was only one direction they could go, and Eni kept walking, her ears full of the sound of water. She shivered; she was still damp from the plunge she had taken and the rain, and the water covering the floor was leaching out her remaining warmth. There was nothing before them but pitch blackness, but after several minutes Eni thought she could see the far wall.

And something else.

Eni cried out, raising her trident and gripping it as tightly as she could. ”Tsar!” she said, ”Look out!”

There was a Zezernak before them, the enormous monster's eyes glittering foully. Its spider-like body loomed far overhead; it had to be at least twice the size of the one they had encountered outside of Ctesiphon, its gigantic front claws resting against the ground and its fearsome maw opened in a grimace.

Tsar had shifted the Archivist so the old markhor was leaning against one shoulder, standing more or less upright, and his whip-sword was already drawn and burning. But rather than lashing out with his weapon, he snuffed its flames and put it away.

”Dead,” he said, sounding almost incredulous, and Eni took a moment for her heart to slow before she took a closer look and realized he was right.

The Zezernak wasn't moving at all; its terrible mouth-parts remained frozen in what Eni realized wasn't a bellow of challenge.

It was an expression of pure agony.

As they got closer, Eni saw that the monster was somehow fused into the rock without any sharp boundaries. Its chitinous carapace simply flowed into solid stone, cracked open here and there, and there were stains where its tarry ichor had leaked out. The monster's head was an ill-formed horror, the back half completely embedded in rock and trailing ropy tendrils. The Zezernak didn't seem to have much of a body; there was only a mess of crushed and desiccated parts merging into the wall.

”Wait,” Tsar said, as Eni was about to take another step closer.

”What is it?” Eni asked, halting instantly.

”Those,” Tsar said, gesturing at the monster's head, and Eni realized that the tendrils she had seen weren't misshapen lumps of the Zezernak. She had seen something similar, though, and Eni's heart fell into her stomach as the memory fell into place.

They were the grasping arms of a Lotophagi.

The thorn-like protrusions still covered drooping tendrils that had forced their way into whatever passed for a Zezernak's brain, and Eni numbly used her lantern to trace where they ended. Her vision throbbed fearfully, and she was absolutely certain the Lotophagi was about to abandon its victim for more interesting fair when Tsar spoke again.

”Dead, too.”

Eni jumped at his words, nearly dropping her trident, and let out a shaky laugh. ”Are… are you sure?” she asked, not taking her eyes away from the intertwined monsters for a moment.

”Yes,” Tsar said, and he walked forward until he was right in front of the gruesome tableau.

”What happened?” Eni asked, glancing from the monstrous remains to Tsar and then back again.

”Sir, how could these be down here?” she demanded, looking at the Archivist, but her mentor looked just as bewildered as she did.

”Lieren,” Tsar said quietly, ”The psycryst in her gauntlet.”

”She can… conjure monsters?” Eni asked, unable to hide the terror in her voice.

The idea of the Woemaker bringing forth another Lotophagi filled her mind, and Eni was desperately glad when Tsar's reply was almost immediate.

”She can,” the wolf said, doing nothing to ease Eni's fears as he gestured at the horrible remains, ”This might have been her first; probably got better with practice. Must have made the one in Ctesiphon.”

”And the Lotophagi?” Eni asked, hating how shrill and tight her voice sounded.

”Didn't summon it here,” Tsar said quietly, ”Look.”

He pointed at a spot somewhere above the Zezernak's corpse, and Eni saw the Lotophagi's tendrils creeping up the wall toward the canal overhead. ”It… It's the same one that attacked us?” Eni asked, and Tsar nodded.

”Must have sensed prey,” he said.

”But how long has this been down here?” Eni asked, and Tsar shrugged.

”You tell me,” he said quietly.

Eni took a deep and steadying breath, trying to treat the monsters as she would any other recently unearthed artifact. It wasn't easy; the dead eyes of the Zezernak seemed horribly life-like when her lantern's light caught them just right, and every now and then a drop of water from the ceiling would make one of the Lotophagi's tendrils sway ever so slightly.

”From… from the dust and the sediment,” Eni said slowly after a moment's consideration, ”I'd say a decade, give or take a few years. I think the Lotophagi was still alive until you destroyed its main body on the river; it must have drained the Zezernak until there wasn't any more magic to feed on. I suppose it had just left its arms behind when it was done eating. What do you think, sir?”

She directed her question at the Archivist, but the markhor seemed lost in thought, barely looking up as she addressed him. ”That sounds… reasonable,” he managed at last.

”But how could Astrasa have done this?” Eni asked, ”If the Zezernak wasn't here the last time you came thirty years ago…”

Eni trailed off, mulling over the possibilities. ”The Woemaker must have found the crypt herself,” she added, ”Do you know anything about psycrysts?”

The Archivist clutched at his staff, his shoulders slumped as he took a wobbling step toward Eni. ”I'll… explain what I can,” the Archivist said, gasping for breath, ”But first…”

”The crypt,” Tsar said quietly, and Eni nodded slowly.

There was a door between the Zezernak's legs, one Eni hadn't noticed before with the monstrous corpses drawing her eye. It was quite large, elevated above the water that covered the floor by a few steps, and carved from the same stone as the wall itself. The three of them advanced on it, the Archivist doing his best to walk, but when they reached the short flight of stairs he sat down heavily. ”Listen…” he said, his fingers trembling on his staff as he looked up at Eni, ”The crypt… It's full of centuries of treasures. Too full… No room for Mister Tsar to carry me. I’d only… delay you.”

Speaking was clearly costing him a tremendous effort, and he plunged on, his attention never drifting away from Eni. The whites of his eyes had taken on a sickly yellowish tinge, and his breathing sounded more labored than ever. ”Go on… The lexicon…” the Archivist said.

His voice was getting weaker, his head drooping, but he forced himself to continue, ”Symbol… The maker's mark… The sigil I…”

The markhor was slurring his words, which were barely more than a whisper, and Eni set her lantern down and sat down next to him, using one arm to help keep him upright as she frantically dug through her pocket for the badge of office he had given her.

She turned the Archivist's sigil over and over in her paws, searching for a distinguishing mark, and then spotted a small design etched into its back. ”Master Arctus,” Eni said, hearing her voice crack as she addressed her mentor, tapping at the carving on the badge's backside, ”Please, sir. Is this the symbol you mean?”

The old markhor nodded faintly, his face looking bloodless under his fur. ”Is the other half of the lexicon… Is it somewhere with this same symbol?”

The Archivist nodded again, his head barely moving, and then he collapsed, his eyes closing. Eni barely managed to catch him in time to ease him down, leaning his back against the wall on one side of the door, and her breath caught in her throat. The markhor was still breathing, but so faintly that his chest barely moved. ”I'll go and get the book,” Eni said, turning to Tsar as she grabbed the lantern and stood, ”You stay here and watch him.”

”No,” Tsar said, quite gently, ”Lieren left an experiment out here. Might be something worse in there.”

He gestured toward the closed door, and Eni glanced at it. There was no lock, or any other obvious means of keeping it sealed; there was a rather mundane-looking handle set into it. ”We'll make it fast,” Tsar said, ”But we'll go together.”

Eni let out a breath and nodded reluctantly. ”Keep an eye out for this symbol,” she said, showing Tsar the strange mark concealed on the badge of office that marked a mammal as the Archivist.

She had never seen a figure quite like it; it didn't mean anything in any language that Eni knew. It almost looked as though it might be Derkomai, the same as the inscrutable text in The Lamentations of Nergora, and something about its combination of smooth curves and jagged lines gave her a distinctly uneasy feeling.

Once Tsar was done looking, Eni stuffed the golden medallion back into her pocket and heaved the door open. It slid smoothly with a ghostly whispering sound and Tsar rushed in, his whip-sword at the ready. ”No one here. Come in,” he called back after an agonizingly long moment, and Eni spared a glance at her mentor before she followed in Tsar's footsteps.

At any other time, Eni was sure she would have been awed by the contents of Gorin's Crypt, but all she could think of was the Archivist. She was horribly afraid of what might happen, decades of wisdom and knowledge on the verge of being snuffed out by a cowardly act of poisoning, and she was determined to see to him the instant she could. ”Let’s hurry,” she said, and Tsar looked around the gloomy darkness.

She held her lantern high as she glanced about; the room was much larger than she had expected it to be, but the Archivist had been right. There were rows and rows of sturdy stone shelves, pressed so close together that Eni had to turn sideways to navigate them. It looked as though the Crypt hadn't been quite so full, when it had first been built, but generations of Archivists had kept adding to the collection until there was hardly any room left. 

The Crypt was so vast that the feeble light of her lantern couldn't reach the far wall, and the ceiling overhead was low and reinforced with thick ribs of stone. A dusty and vast chandelier, full of the stumps of candles and at least twenty feet across, hung from a corroded chain, and as Eni looked at it Tsar ignited it with a single expert crack of his fiery whip-sword.

It added a little bit of light to the room, but not much. Deep shadows still pooled around the shelves and assorted items crammed into the space, but no signs of monsters caught the light and Eni started looking around in earnest.

To the right of the entrance was an enormous stone block, weathered and covered in dead lichen, that blocked most of one aisle. As Eni looked for a way to squeeze past it she glanced at the carvings covering it. They almost seemed to depict Abraxas, but the long-dead mammal's face was exposed. Or it had been, at least, when the block had been newly carved. At some point afterwards, and yet still centuries or millennia ago, someone had literally defaced the carving, chiseling away his features and leaving only the slightest bit of his head.

His fur had, apparently, been white and blue, but Eni put her interest aside and forced her way past the block, feeling stone scraping against her as she did. Once she was past, she turned back to check the other side of the block and stopped.

A massive and sinister pair of eyes dominated the carving, and beneath them the crude figures of animals writhed in either supplication or pain, reaching up in a beseeching manner. Eni shuddered and turned away, scanning the shelves as she continued her search. An odd prickly feeling came over her; it wasn't quite as though she was hearing something but it almost felt like she was. Eni frowned, but as her lantern's beam passed over a dagger stained brown with blood and set in a glass display case she realized what it was her ears were telling her.

It was magic.

The other half of Wordermund's lexicon wasn't the only artifact in the crypt that murmured with power; the sounds came from all around her, the potential seeming to reach out and whisper wordlessly. Eni kept looking, feeling her fur stand on end, but the feeling didn't leave her as she continued down the narrow aisle, still looking for the symbol.

Most of what she saw was books and scrolls, some of them so ancient they had nearly crumbled into dust, but Eni had never seen a single one of them anywhere else. Some of the stone shelves did have symbols carved into them, but not the one she was looking for, and before Eni knew it she was at the far wall.

”Any luck?” she called to Tsar.

He had started his search on the other side of the room, and was already making his way down his third aisle. He shook his head as Eni caught his eye, and she did her best to search as methodically as he did.

Minutes passed, Eni's heart still hammering away in her chest as her thoughts kept returning to the Archivist even as she examined every shelf. When she found what they were looking for she had fallen into the rhythm of searching to such an extent that she nearly kept moving.

”Here!” she called excitedly, and she could hear Tsar padding over toward her as she examined the shelf more closely.

The shelf was taller than Eni but not quite as wide as her hips, divided into three sections. All the shelves had thin and fragile-looking pieces of slate on display, etched with carvings of exquisite delicacy. They seemed to tell a story, even though there were no words of any kind to accompany the art, and Eni felt a chill overcome her.

There was a depiction of the world suspended in its celestial spheres, bountiful and full of life, and then something had come.

Eni wasn't sure what it was supposed to be; the thing was vast and sinister and yet somehow improbably beautiful in its own awful way, and in its wake it brought monsters. Not monsters like any Eni had ever seen described in the Codex Monstrum or in Procerus's diagram, but monsters nonetheless. They pillaged the continents, laying them bare as they slaughtered the inhabitants like chattel, before the foul creatures vanished. From the empty world newly born beings sprung from the ground itself, restoring Aerodan to something near its former glory.

And then it all happened again.

”This is the cycle of Scourges,” Eni whispered to Tsar; he had appeared at her side even as she was taking in the carvings.

Eni reached out, not quite daring to touch the ancient pieces of slate, and indicated the terrible being they showed as being responsible. ”That's… I think that's supposed to be Deiken,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry as she named the Mother's nemesis, ”But… It shows him getting stronger every time there's a new Scourge.”

Tsar looked at the display. ”Doesn't mean it's true,” he said, but his voice wasn't as resolutely certain as Eni would have liked.

She didn't want to think about the possibility that such a terrible being might exist, growing ever more powerful, but she didn’t have long to dwell on it before Tsar reached out and carelessly shifted one of the carvings aside.

Hidden in the darkness behind it was a bundle wrapped in black cloth, and Eni knew exactly what it had to be even as she carefully reached out and grabbed it. She was so sure that she would have another vision of the Visitor that for a moment she almost thought she could hear her own voice, whispering, ”Soon,” but nothing happened as she lifted the heavy object.

Eni peeled back one corner of the shroud, and when she saw the dull gleam of a golden cover she met Tsar's eyes and saw the satisfaction written on his face. ”This is it,” she said, wrapping it back up again and placing it in her satchel, ”Now let's get back to the Archivist.”

She wasn’t sure how long it had taken them to find the book; her sense of time had abandoned her in the eerie vault. The moment it took them to get back to the entrance felt similarly endless as they forced their way past a veritable obstacle course of historical treasures, but once they did Eni froze. The Archivist was no longer where they had left him, resting fitfully against the wall, and they were no longer alone.

The Woemaker was there.

The leopardess sat astride her massive barghest, as confident and proud in a saddle as she was while standing on her own feet. At least twenty Archons had filled the room behind her, holding weapons and blazing torches that were reflected in the ankle-deep water, and at Astrasa's side were two other familiar faces. Procerus was to her left, his scarred face twisted into an expression of satisfaction. And to her right, slumped helplessly against two brawny Archons who held him upright by his arms and cast his face into shadows, was the Archivist.

”Master Arctus!” Eni cried, her eyes widening in horror as she saw her mentor's limp body, ”Please, don't hurt him!”

She had no idea what she and Tsar could possibly do to save him, not against such an army, and Procerus laughed. The sound was harsh and ugly, and Eni chanced a desperate glance at Tsar. The wolf had one paw on his whip-sword, but she could tell from his expression that he didn't care for his chances of freeing their guide before something could happen to the old markhor.

”Such inspiring devotion,” the wolverine drawled, ”Wouldn't you agree, Lieren?”

”He has that effect,” the Woemaker answered, and to Eni's surprise the words almost sounded sincere rather than mocking.

”You poisoned him,” Eni said fiercely, swallowing her fear as she looked from the leopardess to the wolverine, ”I don't know which one of you—”

”I poisoned myself, Eni. A necessary deception, I'm afraid,” a voice interrupted, and as Eni looked back to the Archivist she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

The Archons holding his arms had let go, but his frail body hadn't fallen to the floor. In fact, he didn't look frail in the slightest anymore. He was still old, but his former strength had returned to him, his limbs completely steady and his words as rich and powerful as they had been when Eni had first studied under him. 

The Archivist's eyes flashed with their usual brilliance as he removed his spectacles, and as Eni watched in stunned silence a deferential Archon draped his robes back over his shoulders and brought his staff to his grasp.

”Please, Eni,” her old mentor said, raising one arm in a placating manner and looking at her with a pleading expression, ”Listen to what we have to say.”











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