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Chapter 53: The Lamentations of Nergora

Updated: Apr 4



”Why?” Eni asked.

All her strength had left her; Eni's legs felt barely able to support her as she gaped at her mentor. At her side, Tsar's eyes had narrowed to slits, his hackles raised, and his teeth were bared in a menacing grimace. Even though his whip-sword was still wrapped around his waist he was gripping its hilt tightly, and Eni was sure the slightest provocation would send him exploding into action.

But as she stared at the Archivist in pure disbelief, she wasn't sure she wanted the wolf to hold back.

The old markhor was looking at her softly, his face gently pleading with her, and he spoke quietly. ”Thank you, Eni,” he said, and then gestured downwards with both hooves.

In a louder and stronger voice, he added, ”If you wouldn't mind moving your paws away from your weapon, Mister Tsar, it might help prevent a… misunderstanding.”

The Archivist offered Tsar a smile. ”You have the Lord Warden's followers terrified, you see,” he said, his words full of good-natured humor.

To Eni's wonder, he was right. The Archons standing behind their leaders didn't look anything like the ones who had burst into her apartment. There was no gleam of fanaticism to their eyes or sense of mindless loyalty. She even knew some of them; she would have recognized Professor Tilresson from the architecture department anywhere, and standing next to the tall antelope was Gentis Vernus, the ferret who ran one of her favorite bookstores. There were other faces in the crowd she only recognized by sight; there was a lithe otter who captained a ship and a heavily-muscled bison with a scarred cheek and a missing horn Eni knew to be a member of the Terregor City Guard. The array of mammals before her represented more than a dozen different species in all their variety, predator and prey, old and young.

But to a mammal, they all looked afraid.

The Archons clutched at their weapons and torches, the light that reflected off the water covering the floor wavering as their arms trembled. Only the Woemaker, Procerus, and the Archivist looked fearless, and that didn't change even as Tsar slowly released his grip on his whip-sword and drew his paws away. ”Talk,” the wolf said harshly.

The Archivist inclined his head toward Tsar, and then turned his attention back to Eni. ”I know this must be difficult for you to understand,” he said, his tone warm and kind.

”Please,” Eni said, and she heard her voice crack, ”Just… Tell me the truth, sir.”

It felt as though it should have been a bad dream, but the water lapping at Eni's ankles felt undeniably real, chilling her to the bone. ”I know you have both parts of Wordermund's lexicon now,” the Archivist said, and at his side Eni saw Procerus's ugly face twist into an expression that might have been greed, ”I also know you plan to destroy them, unread, once you determine the necessary means.”

Astride her barghest, Astrasa's haughty expression didn't quite change, but Eni thought she could feel the leopardess's eyes boring through her head. ”I can't allow that to happen,” the Archivist said, his voice still gentle but with a core of iron to it, ”For that reason, when Mister Tsar brought me to the Lord Warden's office, I contrived a means of leaving him a message. We have had our… differences, but we are working toward the same goal.”

”You're wasting time, Kurlan,” Procerus growled, his voice as slow and precise as ever, ”Say your piece and be done.”

Astrasa looked at the wolverine sharply, but the Archivist simply bowed his head. ”As you wish,” he said, and he turned back to Eni.

”What did you think of the carvings you had to move aside to obtain the second half of the lexicon?” he asked.

It took a moment for Eni's mouth to catch up with her thoughts, but she managed to stammer, ”Th—They showed the cycle of Scourges. And D— the one who caused them.”

Eni had almost spoken Deiken's name but she found herself unable to, not with their present company. ”Quite so,” the Archivist said approvingly, ”Those carvings date to before the time of Wordermund. Before the time of Abraxas, in fact. To an age when gods ruled Aerodan.”

”Gods?” Eni repeated, and the Archivist nodded.

”And goddesses, yes,” he said, ”Beings of nearly infinite power and knowledge, the equals of the Mother herself. To most of them, the affairs of mortals were as meaningless as the affairs of ants are to us, but there was one who was different. One whose limitless wisdom was matched by fathomless cruelty and rapacious hunger.”

He spoke with utter sincerity and conviction, and Eni glanced at Tsar. The wolf's expression was an unreadable mask, his unblinking eyes not leaving the Archivist's face. ”To Him,” the Archivist said, and Eni could hear the respect put into the pronoun, ”Aerodan itself was but the shroud around what he truly desired: the Nexus.”

Eni had never heard the word used in the context the Archivist was describing, but she could feel her fur standing on end as the markhor laid out the significance of what he had said. ”The Nexus is the heart of reality, the lynchpin around which all of creation rotates. To control the Nexus is to control what is real… and what is not,” the Archivist continued, and at his words a chill seemed to run through the gathered Archons.

”However, the Nexus is not without its defenses. Reality itself is a shield and, no matter how powerful a mage is, it will always push back against the impossible. Consider what you have seen with your own eyes, Eni,” the Archivist urged, and for an instant Eni could almost hear the thunder of the storm in Ghabarahata.

”But in attempting to tear reality asunder, He brought to bear power beyond any mage, and so the rebound was consequently greater. The Theonecrosis He caused created the first Scourge, and in so doing He did something no one else had ever managed. Aerodan was dealt a grave trauma, and no matter how the Nexus works to heal it, the injury remains. There's a thinness to our world, and every time it stretches too far another Scourge occurs and monsters roam the land once more. Reality itself has a fundamentally mortal wound, and to cure it will require unimaginable strength… and an unbearable sacrifice,” the Archivist intoned solemnly.

An uneasy muttering went up among the assembled Archons, but Eni had to know more. ”What happened to Him?” she asked, ”To Deiken?”

”Through a great and terrible effort, He was eventually sealed away,” the markhor replied, seeming pleased at her question, ”But He is not Deiken. That title is only a meager echo of Him, but it is not His true name,” the markhor said, ”Nor the one by which He called himself.”

The Archivist lifted his staff and drew it through the air in front of him, its tip tracing out a symbol that floated and burned without any support. It was a strange sigil that filled Eni with an instinctive revulsion, although she couldn't say why. The shape had no resemblance to any word in a language she spoke, nor was it a pictogram as far as she could tell. The symbol had a menacing quality to it all the same, promising violence and viciousness without end. The sharp angles and flaming lines almost seemed to whisper to Eni, and she was dimly aware of some of the Archons stepping fearfully back, the light of their torches looking somehow diminished in comparison to what the Archivist had drawn.

”His name,” the markhor said, ”Is Vanargand.”

At his words, Tsar staggered ever so slightly. Eni doubted anyone else would have noticed, but the wolf looked less sure on his feet, his perfect balance thrown off by the tiniest amount. His eyes widened minutely, and his expression became momentarily uncertain before hardening again.

The Archivist took a step away from the burning mark, leaving it suspended in midair, and although Eni looked to him it felt seared into her eyes. Every time she blinked she could still see it, the sigil seeming to twist and gesture for her to come closer. ”The only hope for survival Aerodan has is to use the instructions Wordermund left behind in his lexicon, knowing that one day a mage even greater than he would be born capable of doing what the emperor could not.”

”It is promised,” some of the Archons whispered, the words floating like a breeze, but to Eni's ears they sounded tentative and fearful.

Tsar looked ill, his pupils constricted to pinpricks and his breathing coming faster, and his attention hadn't left Vanargand's written name. Procerus shot the gathered Archons a fierce look and they stiffened, drawing themselves to attention but not managing to hide their terror. ”Or so one version of the story goes,” the wolverine drawled, turning to face Eni, ”Your old friend believes the Slayer to be the mage he needs. A rather… romantic notion.”



Eni felt suddenly certain that the Archons were not as united in their purpose as she had once thought, and something the Archivist himself had once told her drifted through her mind. No organization large enough to have more than one leader is a monolith, he had said, No matter how strong a king or an emperor may have been, their orders were funneled through mammals whose own thoughts and biases filtered the command before it could reach the ears of the lowest members.

The Archivist had been speaking of how civil wars started, but Eni wondered if he had been thinking of how the Archons themselves were organized. Procerus did indeed seem to be the leader, but his grip was anything but absolute. She had no idea how she might use their division to her own advantage, but she clung to the thought desperately, vowing to hang onto every word she heard.

As she watched Procerus, however, the Archivist's expression remained politely neutral, and Astrasa's sharp gaze had yet to leave Eni. ”What Kurlan has neglected to mention,” the wolverine said, ”Is how the Nexus is defending itself. Where Vanargand attempted to tear the shroud of reality away from it, the Nexus has its own champion to oppose him. Nergora, the Risen Mother, will ensure the survival of reality itself.”

A sigh drifted through the assembled Archons, the sound reverential and almost contented enough to wash away their fear as their torches flickered.

Almost.

Procerus offered Eni a lopsided smile, cynical and yet horribly sincere. ”Our lady Nergora, however, is sworn to defend the Nexus. Not Aerodan. If she must destroy and remake our reality to fend off its greatest threat… She will. It is her greatest lament, that such a course of action may be necessary.”

”Then what's the point?” Eni asked, her voice barely more than a whisper, ”Why do you want Tsar?”

The wolverine spoke of the end of the world with an appallingly callous nature, as though he was commenting on the necessity of throwing away a shirt that had been torn into rags. Perhaps it was the only way he could live with what would otherwise be crushing despair, but to Eni it seemed to have only made him hard and cruel. 

”The Risen Mother is not without mercy,” Procerus said, ”It's what separates her from Vanargand the Sincarn. She left behind instructions for how mortals may shield themselves when she remakes the world. A small number, to be sure, like saving a fistful of sand while an entire beach is washed away. But while the appointed hour grows near, and Nergora must act before all is lost, there was one last hope to cling to.”

The wolverine turned his gaze upon Tsar, and the wolf seemed to have trouble tearing his eyes away from the fiery sigil to meet it. Tsar looked somehow weaker than Eni had ever seen him, as though the mark had been a knife through his chest. 

”The hope that, even as the Scourges grew worse with every cycle and the monsters more powerful, the same would be true of mages. That, perhaps, one would be born strong enough to appeal to the Risen Mother directly. One who could serve as her avatar, and under her instructions repair the damage Vanargand did to reality from our side of the Nexus,” Procerus said slowly.

”When the Slayer first appeared, generations ago, some of my predecessors were sure he was that mage. So sure, in fact…” the wolverine began, but he trailed off, his ruined features turning his smile into a ghastly leer, ”I'm getting ahead of myself. We've been evaluating the Slayer since Ctesiphon. Or rather, I suppose I should say we've been evaluating both of you, Miss Siverets.”

Eni couldn't manage a response as Procerus stared at her, his features harsh in the reflected light of the torches. ”Ceslaus wrote of you, before his untimely end. We even supposed it might have been you who slayed the Zezernak,” Procerus continued, making a sound that was just short of being a chuckle, ”But soon enough we heard of the wolf at your side, and so I dispatched a trusted lieutenant to test him. Why don't you share your results, Lieren?”

He gestured at the Woemaker, his arm drifting close to one of her barghest's furious eyes, and Fenris uttered a faint growl, shuffling his enormous feet and sending ripples through the water covering the floor. ”He's weak,” Astrasa said, her voice hard as she spoke for the first time.

She was looking down at Tsar from her perch atop Fenris as though he was an object of contempt, her haughty features set in a dismissive expression. ”Too afraid to use his magic.”

”Not… afraid,” Tsar said, but the words came out as a choked whisper, his defiance sapped of all its power.

His eyes kept darting back to the mark the Archivist had left, and his chest heaved with exertion. ”Didn't… need it,” he spat, but Astrasa just laughed.

The sound was surprisingly rich and pleasant, the leopardess's voice beautifully cold. ”You're not the only one who knows a lie,” she purred, ”I can taste it.”

She nudged her knees into Fenris's sides and the barghest waded forward, his massive nostrils flaring as his enormous head turned from Tsar to Eni.

”S—Stay back,” Eni said, her words horribly tight as she pointed her trident at the beast's face, ”We're still talking.”

She knew she stood no chance against the Woemaker; the icy fingers of fear gripped at her heart but she couldn't stand by, not when Tsar still seemed frozen. The wolf looked almost dazed, his entire body shuddering with each breath. ”Where has your fabled confidence gone, Slayer?” the Woemaker asked, ignoring Eni as Fenris took another step closer, ”Have you become so timid that a rabbit—”

”Leya.”

The Archivist spoke only a single word, the same nickname that Archduchess Kera had used, but it was enough. The Woemaker stopped Fenris in her tracks, and when she glanced over at the old markhor her expression wasn't twisted in fury or anger as Eni had expected. The leopardess let out a long breath, her features smoothing over as she nodded curtly.

”You're unworthy,” she said, not even looking at Tsar as she spoke, ”Nergora will make short work of you.”

”No!” an unfamiliar voice suddenly called.

Eni looked at the crowd of Archons, who seemed just as surprised, splitting apart to leave a goat standing alone. He was about as old as Eni herself was, his brown eyes gleaming in the light of the torch he held, and under his thick robes his body was slim and lean. ”I— I beg your pardon, Mistress Astrasa,” the goat stammered, lowering his head as he bowed to the Woemaker, ”But— But he's the Slayer. He… He must be the promised one.”

The goat splashed forward, his steps kicking up water as he gingerly approached the Woemaker. Procerus was watching keenly, the wolverine's expression looking moderately interested, and the Archivist regarded the goat sagely, his wise face impassive. Astrasa didn't say a word, but as he met her eyes the goat flinched, swallowing so hard that his entire body shook. ”Some of us…” the goat began, ”Some of us have studied the old records. Please, Harbinger Procerus! The honored ones may yet succeed.”

Eni had no idea what he was talking about, but the goat sounded perfectly rational to her ears. His voice wasn't tinged with madness, only a fear so deep that it seemed to pour off of him in waves. She glanced at Tsar, seeing if he could make anything out of the interruption, but the wolf was silent, his eyes and ears darting about the room wildly as though searching for an escape. The oppressive crush of Vanargand's sigil still burned brightly, and Eni realized she had been staring at it as she tore her eyes away.

Whispers had sprung up among the Archons as Procerus considered the goat's words, and then stopped entirely as he lifted one paw. ”I will give you the chance, Adept Cartius” the wolverine said slowly, ”Once Lieren is done.”

”T—Thank you, Harbinger,” Cartius said, pushing his hooves together and bowing.

His expression was somewhere between sheer terror and ecstasy, but Astrasa didn't give him a second glance as she turned back to Tsar. ”You were just as unworthy in single combat with me as you were against what I summoned,” the leopardess said, clenching together her gauntleted fingers into a fist, ”But no more. The Federation and the League both know what is coming. They will witness it.”

Astrasa gestured with lazy carelessness in Cartius's direction. ”Unless you can prove a greater challenge isn't required before the Risen Mother returns,” she said.

Tsar was panting, looking barely able to stand on his feet, but he glared up at the leopardess. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly, and Eni spoke for him. ”I don't believe you,” she said quietly, and she looked around the room, from her old mentor to Procerus to the Woemaker herself and the Archons arrayed behind her, ”Any of you.”

”You want power,” she said, and her voice began growing stronger, ”You can lie to yourselves and say you want to save the world, but you've already slaughtered so many. A village… An entire city… and those weren't enough?”

For an instant, Eni could see Idrun and Ctesiphon in her head, the languish of the latter simply a slower and crueler version of the slaughter at the former. Eni laughed, and the contemptuous sound echoed. ”But that doesn't matter to you, does it?” Eni asked, and she was looking Procerus dead in the eyes as she spoke, ”To understand Derkomai, to gain power, you'll do anything… As long as you don't have to make the sacrifice.”

Her chest was heaving, and her blood sang through her veins with an anger unlike anything she had ever felt. It was pure and righteous in a way that washed away all doubts and uncertainties. She was doing what she had to do, standing her ground for as long as Tsar could not, and her grip on her trident grew firmer.

The Archivist looked back at her sadly, but he wasn't the one who spoke. ”How wrong you are, Miss Siverets,” Procerus said heavily, and he gestured sharply, ”Adept Cartius, you may join the others.”

The goat stumbled forward, wading through the water, and for an instant Eni was sure he was about to throw himself at Tsar in an attempt to tackle the wolf. ”Deliver us!” Cartius cried.

He fumbled at his waist and emerged holding a silver dagger, and as Eni moved to intercept him the goat did the last thing she had expected.

Adept Cartius slit his own throat.

His blood spurted from the horrible wound, spraying Eni and Tsar. It was hot and sticky, and Eni gagged as drops of it flew into her mouth, which had dropped open with horror. The taste was awful, coppery and metallic, and she spat violently as she doubled over, suddenly afraid that Astrasa would take advantage of her weakness and rush her.

No one moved.

Cartius emitted a terrible gurgling death rattle before his body collapsed to the floor with a splash, the water underfoot turning brilliantly crimson in a rapidly growing puddle around his fatal injury. Tsar stood utterly still, blood dripping off his muzzle and down his cloak, and in the light of Vanargand's sigil and the torches his eyes appeared as lifeless as twin blue marbles. He licked his lips, red droplets clinging to his tongue, and his head tilted slowly downwards as he regarded the dead goat.

”Shouldn't…” Tsar croaked, his voice dry and creaky.

Eni looked at Adept Cartius's body in horror, and she realized who the honored ones the Archons had spoken of had been. The fanatics who had invaded her apartment must have been trying the exact same thing the goat had just done, to overwhelm Tsar with the same bloodlust that had filled him at the site of his greatest shame. But whereas the first four had failed, Cartius must have come terrifyingly close to success.

The wolf's fur stuck out wildly, Vanargand's sigil reflected in his dull eyes, and he stared down at the corpse. ”Tsar!” Eni said, and she reached out and grabbed his arm.

She let go almost immediately, falling to her knees. Her stomach churned in frantic knots, her vision wavering in and out of focus as she looked into her own terrified reflection in the bloody water. What she had seen—

There were no words that could express it. There had been something beyond images. Beyond sensation. Beyond thought. The power of Tsar's mind had been crushingly vast, too large to comprehend and yet also horrifyingly simple.

It was hunger without limits. Insatiable cravings, depraved and shameless in their intensity, and as Eni slowly looked up at Tsar the feeling didn't leave her. ”Eni…” he whispered, his voice distant and far away as his dead gaze met her eyes, ”Run.”

Eni swallowed hard. ”No,” she said, her voice clear and bright, and she turned back to face the Archons, ”I won't help you.”

The Archivist looked pained, but Procerus seemed pleased. ”You already have,” he said, ”You spoke of a village… Idrun, I suppose? That was well before my time as Harbinger, but… I was sure it was significant.”

The wolverine's eyes slid over to the Archivist, who said nothing, and then he opened a small pouch on his belt and removed something wrapped in a handkerchief. It was smaller than Eni's thumb and made a silvery musical sound as he carefully unfolded its shroud. What was exposed when he was done was nothing more than a small bell, the sort of thing a young female might wear as an ornament around her neck. Procerus held it delicately between two fingers and rang it, and Eni knew beyond any doubt that it wasn't simply a bell. She had heard it before, but not with her own ears. It had been the sound that filled her head when she had touched Tsar and shared his memory of Idrun for the second time, and as she stared at the tiny piece of silver she realized why.

His second victim had worn it.

Eni hadn't seen the faun’s death at Idrun, but she was absolutely sure of what had happened, the cheery tolling sounding sinister as Procerus shook it before almost carelessly tossing it to Tsar. The wolf caught the bell, as if by reflex, and the result was immediate. His eyes rolled up into his head, landing on one shoulder and then rolling over to lay on his back with his limbs splayed outwards. ”Tsar!” Eni cried, but even as she reached out for him she paused.

She could almost feel something boiling off of him and in the flickering light of the chamber the sclera of his eyes looked oddly dark, his irises hidden from sight. ”Bind him,” Procerus ordered, and Eni sprung to her feet.

”Stop!” she called, holding out her trident and spinning in a slow half-circle as she stood guard over Tsar's unconscious form, ”Don't come any closer.”

”Eni, please,” the Archivist begged, but Procerus looked at her mercilessly.

”Miss Siverets too, Lieren,” the wolverine said, and the Woemaker and her barghest were on Eni before she had the chance to react.

Fenris knocked her weapon from her paws before bowling her over, his heavy paws crushing her arms as his massive and slavering head filled her vision. His rough tongue emerged from his maw and began licking her face, and although Eni squirmed with disgust there was nothing she could do to stop the beast. He was too strong; she could feel her fingers going numb beneath his bulk, and although she tried kicking with her legs they did nothing more than splash helplessly in the water.

”Please, don't hurt her!” Eni heard the Archivist shout, the words murky as her ears filled with water and she struggled to keep her nose in the air.

With every ferocious lick, Fenris pushed her head into the blood-stained water, and she could feel it filling her mouth with its bitter metallic taste. Eni desperately grasped for her power, trying to focus her ability, and she closed her eyes in desperate concentration. She had disabled Fenris before, and it seemed only right that she should be able to do so again, but no matter how she tried pulling together the threads of strength within herself nothing came.

”Fenris, yield!” Eni blurted in Jarku before she realized what she was saying, and to her amazement he did, even without the force of her magic behind the words.

The barghest stopped licking her immediately, although his drooling muzzle hung over her own and filled her nose with the sour scent of his breath. Eni heard a splash and saw Astrasa's legs making their way toward her as the leopardess dismounted. ”He likes you,” Astrasa said, her voice coming from horribly near and filled with what sounded like genuine amusement, ”I suppose this explains why he lost his taste for rabbit.”

Before Eni could try another command, the Woemaker barked one. ”Fenris, back!” she ordered, and the barghest retreated a single step.

Eni lunged forward as fast as she could, but even her fastest wasn't good enough. The instant Fenris's crushing weight vanished from her arms, it was replaced with the equally crushing strength of the Woemaker's grip. Eni cried out as the leopardess roughly forced her to put her arms behind her back, holding them in place with her gauntleted paw as the other began tying them together with coarse rope.

The next moment, Eni felt herself being pulled upright and shoved forward none too gently. ”We'll find a use for her, Kurlan,” Procerus said grimly, and Eni looked at the Archivist.

”Please, sir,” she begged.

There was nothing else she could do. Tsar had already been dragged away by a group of Archons, the bell still clutched in his unresponsive paw and his eyes rolled back. They had bound him with what looked like enough rope to rig a ship, and as if that wasn't enough had followed up with heavy chains. The Archivist looked at her sympathetically but silently, and Eni wished for nothing more than to know the right thing to say. There had to be something, she knew. Some word or phrase that would make her old mentor see her side, that would make the Archivist act against the Archons.

She couldn't think of anything.

Despair filled Eni's heart as the Woemaker marched her over to where Procerus stood, and a cold sense of futility washed over her. It was hopeless. She had gone as far as she possibly could, and her efforts hadn’t been enough. Defeat tasted as bitter as Cartius's blood in her mouth, and even the water covering the floor felt chillier than it had a moment ago. Eni stumbled over an uneven stone hidden beneath the murky water, and as her head bobbed downward she saw something peculiar.

Rimes of frost were forming around her ankles, the ice crystals pure and white against her dirty fur. Eni's eyes widened as a slim flame of hope ignited in her chest, and she savagely slammed her head backwards as hard as she could, groping for Astrasa as she did.

There was a brilliant flash of pain as the back of her skull collided with the leopardess's nose, but Eni hadn't been reaching with her head or her paws. She had reached out with her power, and she felt the Woemaker's thoughts against hers.

The underground chamber was gone, replaced by a familiar endless snowy plain, but Eni refused to yield. It's not real, she told herself, It's not real.

A biting wind howled across the desolate wasteland, without so much as a tree in sight, and Eni turned in a slow circle, relishing her sudden freedom. Her arms were no longer bound, although they were going numb with the cold, and Eni desperately looked around for any sign of the Woemaker. There was nothing, no company but herself, and Eni felt the familiar fear filling her heart again.

Tsar abandoned you.

”No he didn't,” Eni muttered, her breath visible before her as she sucked in calming breaths of the frigid air, ”He needs me. He needs me.”

She knew what she saw was false, nothing more than an echo of the terrible fantasy the Lotophagi had conjured for her. But it was impossibly real, too real to deny, and her memory warred with itself. Had she really had an encounter with Archons in the catacombs under the Terraces of Gorin? The idea seemed laughably impossible, a cheap delusion to make her feel better about herself.

”It happened,” Eni said to herself in a shaky voice, still looking about, and she saw a brilliantly golden flash a few hundred yards away.

Eni set off after the lone piece of color in the endless expanse of white and gray, but she couldn't seem to run very fast. Her clothes were ruined tatters that did nothing to block the cold, and she could recall exactly why she was so poorly dressed. It had been years since the last city she had been able to stop in, and— ”No,” Eni whispered, although her voice cracked, ”No, that didn't happen.”

The thoughts dimmed without vanishing, keeping up a running litany as she forced her way through the thick snow and toward a small golden lump. Eni could remember the realization that she was too hungry for her winter coat to grow in, starved too thin for the energy her body needed to produce longer and thicker fur, and she tried to cast it aside. ”Tsar needs me,” Eni told herself.

You failed him. He’s gone.

Her voice was as cruel and as cold as the wind, and Eni squeezed her eyes shut so hard that tears welled up and instantly froze against her cheeks. Eni screamed a wordless shout and blinked her eyes open, blearily trying to make out what she had seen. She was finally getting closer, and as she was at last on top of the golden figure, Eni came to a sudden stop. It was the Woemaker before her, curled up on the ground. There was no mistaking her brilliant fur, which gleamed like polished metal, or her eyes, which were like burnished coins.

But she couldn't be more than ten or eleven.



The leopardess before Eni was impossibly small, the distinctive whiskers over her eyes quite short and her face still rounded with youth. The Woemaker wore thin clothes barely any better than the rags Eni herself was wearing, and a cruel iron collar was locked around her neck. Astrasa was grimy, clods of dirt and dried blood smudging her beautiful fur, and she had a terrible wound at her left temple that looked like a blunt knife had barely missed putting out her eye. It was swollen tight, the skin under her fur an angry infected red weeping pus from the bloody gouge, and she was stifling a sniffle.

The Woemaker gaped up at Eni, her delicate features staring at her in open amazement, and when she spoke her voice was as high and child-like as Eni would have guessed. ”No,” she said, pushing herself to her feet and tottering uncertainly, ”I'm past this. This is over, do you hear me? This is done!”

The tiny leopardess snarled, turning in a circle, and then she threw herself at Eni. Eni hadn't been ready for it, but she easily caught the thin arms of the young and injured Woemaker, holding her paws and grasping claws away from herself. The biting cold surrounding them seemed to deepen, but Eni held on as tight as she could, trying to press for an advantage. Astrasa cried out as Eni reached, and—

”That was interesting,” Eni heard Procerus's voice say.

She blinked groggily, trying to move, but her limbs were locked in place by something incredibly cold. Eni tried shaking her head but couldn't; even her neck was forced to stay as it was. ”Clever, I'll grant her that,” Astrasa's voice came, ”She's been practicing mentalism.”

The leopardess spoke more roughly than usual, and Eni's vision at last cleared.

Procerus, Astrasa, and the Archivist were standing in front of her, but her perspective was odd; although they still seemed to be in the familiar hidden chamber, the Zezernak's corpse visible behind them, she was looking down on all of them. It was as though she was at least a foot taller than usual, and as Eni glanced down and saw her reflection in the water covering the floor she realized why.

Eni was partially encased in a block of ice.

Her heart sank as she realized she must have made her own prison, her power uncontrollably freezing the water on the floor. It was obdurately hard, binding her so tightly that her chest could barely move in and out with each breath, but her eyes were still free to roam the room. She searched desperately, but Tsar was nowhere to be seen. 

”Everything will be alright, Eni,” the Archivist promised in a soothing tone, but Eni was barely paying attention, and as she frantically looked for a hiding spot she might have missed her gaze was drawn to the center of the chamber.

Procerus had both golden lexicons in his arms, the thick sleeves of his robes and heavy gloves preventing him from coming into direct contact with them. The Archons had assembled a stone altar at the exact middle point of the room, upon which a roiling fire was crackling merrily, and the wolverine had his back to Eni as he approached it.

Astrasa, a trickle of blood coming from her nose, spared Eni a final calculating glance and then positioned herself nearby, clearly intending to keep an eye on her.

”It's not too late to stop,” Eni said, hardly able to meet the Archivist's eyes as she realized Tsar was gone, and he just gave her a small and terribly sad smile.

”We're chroniclers, Eni,” he said, shaking his head, ”Their bane is us.”












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