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Chapter 54: The Visitor

Updated: Apr 4




Eni hoped the Archivist would say more, but he didn't. The old markhor's eyes slid away from hers and met the Woemaker's gaze, which was returned with a nod. ”Kurlan!” Procerus's gravelly voice called, ”To me!”

Eni's mentor didn't even look back as he approached the center of the room, where Procerus had reached the fiery altar. His departure left Eni with no company besides Astrasa and Fenris; the massive barghest had curled up at his mistress's side, drool running from his maw as he hungrily ogled the remains of Adept Cartius. The Woemaker stroked his shaggy back almost absently, but her attention was fixed to the same focal point as everyone else.

Although the air in the chamber was utterly still, Eni got the sense she was standing just outside a cyclone, feeling the wind rip past her as it circled the eye of the storm. She was aware of a terrible power, low and unsettling like the rumble of distant thunder, as Procerus set down the golden relics and beckoned the Archivist over. ”Assemble them,” the wolverine ordered, and the Archivist bowed.

The other Archons were silent, their eyes flickering in the light of the fire as they watched in a loose semicircle about ten feet away from the altar. The Archivist reached into his robes and pulled free a set of gloves, which he put on with tremendous delicacy before slowly lifting the two golden books.

When he raised them, one in each hoof, it was the first unobstructed view Eni had gotten of the lexicons, and despite herself she was fascinated. The tomes were achingly beautiful, their flawless golden bindings completely covered with engravings too fine to make out from where she was entombed. Eni strained at the ice, trying to get a better look, but she remained just as trapped as she had been when she had first come to.

And Tsar was just as absent.

She had no idea where the wolf could have possibly gone; none of the Archons were positioned in such a way that made it look like they were guarding a prisoner, and Procerus seemed arrogantly sure of himself. The wolverine watched keenly as the Archivist delicately maneuvered the two volumes together, sliding one into the other, and there was a gentle click as they formed a single book.

The two components of Wordermund's lexicon had paired together so perfectly that it seemed as though they had never been separated, and Eni could almost hear something. It was as though a bell had been rung or a stone tossed into the middle of a pond, sending out reverberating ripples Eni felt with her mind rather than her ears. Procerus appeared fully ignorant of what had just happened, stonily still except to brusquely gesture for the Archivist to leave him and join the other devotees.

From within his clothes, the wolverine pulled forth a copy of The Lamentations of Nergora, identical to the one in Eni's own satchel, and held it reverently high. ”The time has come, my brothers and sisters,” he said, his voice slow and thunderous, ”As it is promised, so shall it be.”

”It is promised,” the Archons and the Archivist said, all in one voice, but Astrasa remained silent and watchful.

Procerus lowered the book, but rather than opening it, he gently set it into the flickering flames before him. For a moment, the fire burned higher, throwing off sparks as it consumed the offering, and then the lexicon awakened.

The effect was immediate. The burnished golden pages were even brighter than the fire before them, and Eni's cry of pain as she squeezed her eyes half-shut was echoed by the congregation. Some of the Archons threw their arms over their faces, but Eni couldn't, the ice still keeping her immobile. As she watched, the chamber filled with light, banishing every shadow. Every nook and cranny became vividly sharp, and the corpse of the Zezernak fused into the wall looked almost alive, its dead eyes seeming to glow. 

Eni could see every block that made up the walls and ceiling, every patch of moss and lichen, and even the mammals before the altar looked impossibly real. There was an intensity to Procerus that made his ruined face more terrible and yet also more handsome than ever, his head turned away from the onslaught before him. The light was only getting even more unnaturally intense as it washed away all colors, and even as Eni closed her eyes entirely it penetrated her eyelids, burning with a chilling lack of warmth. 

She was sure it would never cease and they would all be consumed by the perverse radiance, but then Procerus spoke a single word. It was the first word in Derkomai Eni had ever learned, and the assault on her vision stopped instantly.

Sacrifice.

Eni blinked her eyes open, staring in mute horror at what had appeared. The fire on the altar was still burning, and the lexicon was still before it, but a single sigil hung above the flames in a sinister fashion. It was the same one Eni had seen in Tsar's memory, made even more terrible by how it appeared.

The symbol wasn't composed of flames, as Vanargand's name had been when the Archivist had summoned it. Instead, it appeared to be made of pure nothingness. Compared to the brilliant blaze, the sigil was a perfect void, utterly devoid of light and color, and she could hear it. It produced a noise that made all the music Eni had ever heard in her life seem primitive and inchoate, so complex and vibrant that it promised volumes of meaning and nuance in its simple form. 

Eni could almost grasp them; she could see how the subtleties of each line and curve that formed the sigil came together. The same symbol could mean the sacrifice of a single life or of an entire army, all depending on the precise way it was drawn, and the sigil twisted and reshaped itself ever so slightly as she watched.

The sinuous pattern promised death in the name of a greater cause, death in the pursuit of something far nobler and purer than anything Eni could even fathom, but before she could grasp it fully it vanished, replaced by something else.

Treachery.

Procerus spoke the Derkomai word first and it seared itself into Eni's mind as though a brand had been forced into her skull. She gasped bitterly but couldn't look away, not even as the other Archons echoed their leader. Eni heard her own voice among them, unable to prevent the strange and beautiful syllables from passing her lips, and another voice joined in.

Tsar was screaming, the wolf howling with a pain beyond mortal comprehension, and to Eni's wandering eyes he appeared on the far side of the flames. He had been hidden by the bulk of the altar, but although he was still bound head to toe he rose in stubborn defiance of gravity. He hung in midair, completely unsupported, the ropes and chains binding him creaking and squealing as he writhed. His head was thrown back, his muzzle open wide as he bellowed, and Eni realized there was something more than agony filling the wordless cry.

It was wrath.

Anger boiled off him, and as his body twisted furiously his bindings gave way. The chain was first, exploding into pieces with a terrible metallic noise. There was a sound like a swarm of wasps followed by a spray of ice shards as a link missed her face by inches and embedded itself in the frozen block that entombed her, but one of the Archons was not nearly as fortunate.

A ewe collapsed, a brilliant red spot appearing in her throat as a chunk of metal passed through her neck, and she barely had time to clutch at her wound before she was dead. Her blood mixed into the mess Adept Cartius had left behind, and while the other Archons cried out in alarm Procerus ignored everything but the sigil. Even as the wolverine spoke, the rope around Tsar had been reduced to tattered shreds, falling away from his body, and for one moment Eni hoped the wolf was about to come back to his senses.

He didn't.

Tsar's arms stretched out, the paw holding the bell clenched into a fist so tightly that blood oozed between his fingers where his claws cut into his palm, but his head arched back and his voice remained raised in an awful and endless scream. It seemed impossible for a mammal to shout for so long without drawing breath, but Tsar was unwavering, his pain and fury so visceral that Eni felt like weeping.

The symbol before Tsar changed again, and Eni did start crying, helpless sobs racking her body as the meaning burned into her head. She couldn't help herself, not in the face of such a crushingly powerful emotion, which made everything she had ever felt before feel trivial and pointless.

Despair.

Nothing she had ever known compared to the icy strength in the Derkomai word. Eni's stomach fell and her limbs felt crushingly heavy, the sense of loss so vast that every beat of her heart was torturous. She tore her streaming eyes away, desperate for something else, and her gaze fell on Tsar once more. The wolf's arms reached out toward Procerus, his snarling maw straining for the wolverine, but he remained trapped in place, unable to close the distance that separated them. And as he labored, the Zezernak did too.

The monster's corpse shuddered, its brutal claws lashing out as it tried to pull itself forward from where it had been fused into the wall, and Eni realized with a thrill of dread what was happening. The Zezernak hadn't returned to life, as awfully genuine its movements looked. Its incomplete carapace even rose and fell in a mockery of breathing as its misshapen form struggled, but the monster was only doing so in a perfect imitation of Tsar.

The Zezernak's motions mirrored his completely, its terrible maw open in a soundless scream as it copied Tsar's cry, and some of the Archons cried out in alarm, retreating as far away from it as they could. Procerus looked almost ecstatic, his arms raised in triumph as he shouted to be heard over the wolf. ”Watch!” he bellowed, his rough voice filled with glee, ”Watch as the Risen Mother reveals her wisdom!”

The sigil floating above the fire suddenly twisted and reshaped itself again, but it didn't stop. More and more Derkomai words formed and vanished just as quickly, boring into Eni's brain just as much as the earlier ones had. If anything, it was worse with no time to recover between each symbol's appearance, and Eni's head felt horribly overstuffed as sentences took shape in her mind and on her tongue.

These have been my constant companions, ere your kind looked upon the night sky with wonder instead of witless terror. In the millennia since, even your most learnèd have groped in darkness, perceiving naught but the smallest lights with minds too meager to comprehend them.

Eni could feel the voice behind the words, crushing her psyche under its vast pressure. It felt older than Aerodan and impossibly weary, tinged with melancholy.

”Yes!” Procerus cried, ”We are small before you, oh Mother, but we beseech your grace!”

His words had a ritualistic feel to them, but whether the lexicon reacted to his plea or simply continued as it had been written Eni couldn't say. The sigils twisted and reformed yet again, and through it all Tsar kept thrashing while the Zezernak did the same.

But what would creatures such as you know of your own ignorance? You fumble in the dirt as you dream of the stars, heedless of what passed ere your time. Hear me well if you would dare, misborn ones.

The eerie Derkomai chanting filled the chamber, and Eni was powerless to prevent herself from joining in. The words demanded to be spoken, only Tsar seeming unaffected as he twisted and writhed and yet remained stuck in place. Eni's heart was pounding in her ears, her vision throbbing with every beat, and she felt sure she could take no more. ”Stop!” she shouted, but what came out of her mouth was barely more than a feeble squeak, ”Stop!”

Eni pleaded with her power, calling out for the wind or the fire, but no answer came. The Archons ignored her, and the terrible forms above the flames shifted one final time.

These are my lamentations, and I am Nergorath.

The sentence pushed its way into Eni's mind, and when she came to the last word, speaking the strange Derkomai syllables, she finally knew what Nergora was. Nergora was not simply old and vastly powerful. Nergora was ancient and mighty beyond mortal comprehension, her mind as unspeakably enormous and endlessly complex as the language her lamentations had been recorded in. 

For a brief instant, a flash of what Nergora herself looked like filled Eni’s head before it became too much to comprehend, leaving her with nothing more than an impression of beautiful iridescence. It might have been the shape of her body, or perhaps that of her magic, but the creature was achingly graceful either way and Eni wished she could have held onto what she had seen.

The sigil that represented Nergora hung motionless above the flames, the Archons falling to their knees in the filthy water as they bowed in supplication, and a portentous silence filled the chamber. Tsar's screams had given way to shuddering gasps, his body jerking slightly, and the Zezernak behind him followed suit. Eni was sure that it was nothing more than a cruelly brief respite before an even worse convulsion.

Instead, the fire on the altar began to vanish.

It wasn't being extinguished or dying out. It wasn't even fading out of existence like an illusion being displaced; the blaze was being pulled into Nergora's sigil. 

Eni watched in disbelief as the utter darkness of the lines and curves that made up the haunting symbol hungrily sucked in the flames, which disappeared as they were pulled into the void. The entire sanctum grew dimmer, and Eni realized it wasn't simply the flames on the altar that were being consumed. The torches that the Archons held drained, their light being drawn toward the center of the room in glowing streaks, and some of the mammals murmured with concern as before long they were plunged into complete darkness.

Somehow, even without any light whatsoever, Eni could still perceive Nergora's name. It was blacker than black, an impossible absence of color so far beyond mere darkness that it still stood out. Eni squirmed fruitlessly against the ice that contained her, trying to brace herself for the onslaught sure to come when the Derkomai words unspooled once more. She could make out Astrasa's footsteps as the leopardess sloshed through the water still coating the floor, Tsar's panting filling her ears. She heard two or three voices, high-pitched with excitement and fear, as Archons spoke to each other while Procerus remained silent.

And then all the fire returned at once.

Nergora's sigil exploded with flames in vivid colors, burning so bright after the darkness that Eni squinted her eyes yet again. It was no use; the sigil glowed brighter than the sun, ribbons of flame twisting off of it and sinking to the floor in seemingly random arcs. The gouts of fire spinning from Nergora's name seemed utterly unconcerned as to what they hit, striking out at everything in equal measure. 

Sections of the wall and the ceiling high above began glowing red-hot as they were touched, enormous stone blocks cracking at their sudden change in temperature. Eni tried pulling her arms forward to free herself, hoping that the increasing warmth of the underground chamber would make the ice covering her melt faster, but she was still trapped. Where tongues of fire hit the water coating the floor, there were immediate explosions of steam, hissing and bubbling ferociously, and a huddle of three Archons uttered ghastly screams as they were cooked alive. The sickening scent of seared flesh filled the air, and the other mammals in the room glanced about, their eyes wide with terror as they realized they were in an oven.

Except for the Harbinger, the Woemaker, and the Archivist.

The wolverine's followers tried finding safety where there seemed to be none, he appeared utterly fearless, keeping his position by the altar. The Woemaker and the Archivist were standing near him, looking to where Tsar hung suspended in midair behind the sigil. Eni couldn't imagine how they could bear to be so close; even from where she was, toward the edge of the chamber, she could feel the tremendous heat radiating off of it. ”The Risen Mother shall not harm her chosen faithful!” Procerus bellowed, his face a hideous mask of pleasure as he looked about at the terrified Archons.

As if to underscore his point, a burst of flames passed within inches of his face, and although his robes began smoldering he was not hurt. At the sight of their leader remaining untouched, some of the Archons seemed to take heart, boldly standing upright instead of cowering in the water, but not all of them had Procerus's luck. The tallest mammal present, the enormous bison with the missing horn, was struck by a pillar of flame and the effect was instantaneous. His flesh seemed to simply vanish from his bones before even his skeleton was reduced to ash, leaving behind nothing but a charred pair of legs and a flaming scrap of fabric from his robes.

The chamber was becoming unbearably warm, and Eni could feel trickles of tepid water running down her body where the ice encasing her was at last giving way. She gave the Mother a silent prayer that one of the random bursts of fire wouldn't consume her while she could do nothing more than watch what the Archons had wrought unfolding. 

”Patience!” Procerus called, and at his side the Woemaker made a tiny gesture with her gauntleted paw.

It was barely noticeable, and Eni herself might have overlooked it entirely except for one peculiarity. At the same time that the leopardess's fingers twitched, Eni felt something in her head like a harp being plucked, and she knew what the Woemaker had done. At Astrasa's command, one of the fiery tendrils deflected ever so slightly, veering off its course toward the wall.

Procerus was still speaking, urging his followers as he looked at the terrible sigil in the chamber's center. ”She is almost—”

The blast of fire that had yielded to the Woemaker passed right through his torso, killing the wolverine instantly.

As what was left of his body collapsed to the floor, Eni felt the certainty of the Archons evaporating. Panic and fear filled their faces once more, some of them openly wailing as they considered their dead leader, but the Woemaker ignored them. She strode forward, toward the altar, and held her gauntleted paw above Wordermund's lexicon. Eni saw a brief flash of the psycryst hidden in the palm, and as the Woemaker raised her arm the lexicon levitated above it, drifting upwards.

Astrasa paused only to look at the Archivist, even as the Archons observed in numb terror, and then moved her arm smoothly. The lexicon followed obediently, hurtling through the air and into Nergora's sigil. The golden lexicon didn't melt or burst into flames as Eni had expected it would; it seemed to get pulled in, stretching and thinning as it disappeared.

”The Risen Mother is claiming her chosen,” Astrasa said loudly, looking toward the surviving mammals, ”Flee, or die here and be brought to her bosom.”

None of them chose to flee.

Eni heard voices raised in frightful ecstasy as they latched onto the explanation she had given them, enthusiastically embracing their demises. Some of the remaining Archons threw themselves into the gouts of fire, burning alive before they could even scream. Some of them drew knives, slitting their own throats before collapsing to the floor. And the rest threw themselves at the Woemaker.

They weren't attacking her; they sought her blade and her fist, and the leopardess obliged mercilessly. Her gauntlet and her dully black dagger made quick work until there were none remaining, and Eni couldn't do anything but look back at Astrasa and the Archivist until they were the last mammals left standing except for Tsar.

Seeing the wolf, still helplessly trapped in the air and uttering pained cries, steeled Eni's resolve, and she pulled at the threads of her power once again. She wanted nothing more than him, and the idea filled her with a fire that felt nearly the equal of the one that the Lamentations of Nergora had spawned. Heat seemed to flow into her, sinking down into her belly and burning brightly, and gasped at the feeling as she strained for freedom. She could feel the ice giving way, melting faster, and then at last she was free, stumbling to the ground. 

There was barely any water left on the floor; virtually all of it had evaporated in the incredible heat, making the air steamy with haze, and the warmth inside of Eni seemed to be burning even brighter as she considered her mentor and the Woemaker.

”We haven't got much time, Eni,” the markhor said urgently, beckoning her toward him.

When she remained frozen in place, unsure of what to do, he approached her instead, walking over until he was standing before her. ”I do apologize for the deception, but Procerus was protected by powers far greater than his own.”

Her mentor’s eyes flickered quickly and meaningfully to where Nergora’s sigil still hung in the air, the flames coming off it starting to loop back into the symbol in mesmerizing patterns. Eni forced her gaze away and slowly nodded her understanding as the Archivist continued. ”Turning that same strength against him was our only choice,” he said solemnly, ”We could not allow him to leave the crypt with the knowledge contained in the lexicons.”

Eni wished she was as confident as Tsar when it came to sensing lies, but when she looked to her mentor she had no idea whether he was telling the truth or not. For that matter, it felt as though she barely knew who the Archivist was anymore. His face looked as wise and kindly as ever, but it was combined with a terrible sadness that seemed utterly sincere.

More than anything, she wanted to go to Tsar, but Astrasa was in the way, regarding Eni curiously with her bloodied gauntlet and sword still raised. The Archivist grimaced, turning to look at the catastrophic mess filling the chamber. ”Our victory tastes rather bitter, I confess,” he said quietly, ”It's time to leave before what we’ve riled takes notice of us.”

Eni had no idea what the Archivist or Astrasa would do next if she resisted or went to Tsar. Neither seemed particularly afraid of the fading bursts of fire from Nergora’s sigil, which were still spinning off randomly, and Eni looked from one to the other as she tried to find something to say.

”Why?” she managed at last, her voice soft, ”Why didn’t you tell me?”

The Archivist sighed. ”A simple question with a complicated answer,” he said, his voice a touch rueful, ”But one I will endeavor to answer completely. Leya, if you could be so kind as to have Fenris carry the Slayer?”

Astrasa nodded curtly, barking out a command in Jarku that brought her barghest running to her. The beast had remained utterly still throughout everything that had happened, apparently waiting for a new order from his mistress, and he took up her place at the Woemaker's side. She flung herself into the saddle with easy grace and began guiding him around the altar.

”I don’t expect your forgiveness,” the Archivist said gravely, ”Nor will I make excuses for the decisions I’ve made. You’ve suffered terribly, and nothing I can give you, not even my badge of office, can convey how truly sorry I am.”

It felt as though he had given her the medallion a lifetime ago, but it was still safe in her pocket. Eni pulled it out, the metal cold against her paw. ”I promised to give it back,” she said, and although the Archivist reached out he didn't take it. 

The old Markhor wrapped his fingers around hers, squeezing tightly. ”It would honor me for you to keep it, my leveret,” he said, a sad smile brightening his face, ”And exceed me, as I always knew you would.”

Eni considered him, hearing the warmth of his words, but before she could speak a burst of flame suddenly shot off from Nergora's sigil and toward Tsar for the first time. The wolf's eyes were closed, but he seemed to sense it anyway, twisting to avoid the flame as the Zezernak mimicked his movement. As Tsar's arm moved out of the way, his fingers suddenly unclenched, and a small bloodstained silver bell fell to the ground.

It made a single musical chime as it hit the dry floor, the Zezernak going completely inert an instant before Tsar himself collapsed to the ground, and the Archivist looked at the bell in sudden horror. ”Eni…”

Nergora's sigil exploded with light once again, a wall of flame roaring out as the void lost its shape and became nothing more than fire. The Archivist held up his staff, as though the old wooden stick could somehow block the blaze, and to Eni's immense surprise it somehow did, leaving them both untouched.

The flames had passed around them, and his staff burned. Pieces of scorched wood fell away, revealing a core of gleaming iron, while its wielder struggled to stay on his feet as the fire reared back. The conflagration wasn't moving as it had before, when it had seemed entirely random. There was an intelligence to what Eni was seeing, something that was assessing the markhor's strengths and sizing him up as it toyed with him, and before Eni the flames reshaped themselves into something horribly familiar.

They became an enormous and burning pair of eyes.

Eni had seen them before, she knew. She had caught glimpses of them smoldering within fires, from time to time, and always dismissed it as nothing more than her imagination. She had even seen them on the carved block depicting Abraxas within the crypt, and Eni felt terribly sure she knew whose eyes they were.

Their gaze was harsh as they fixed themselves on the Archivist, and Eni glanced about desperately for anything she could do. She spotted her trident on the floor where she had dropped it and rushed for it, scooping it up and then turning back toward her mentor. Astrasa seemed to be having the same idea; she was still astride Fenris but had made the beast leap the altar and hurry for the Archivist. Tsar still lay where he had fallen, utterly motionless, and Eni changed direction without even thinking. She sprinted for Tsar, not stopping until she was cradling the wolf's limp head in her lap, but what she saw filled her with horror.

The flaming eyes were throwing off tremendous pillars of fire that made the previous inferno look like a match, immense beams keeping Astrasa from being able to get too close. The Archivist braced himself against the firestorm with his rod pointed upwards, nearly all of the wood coating its metal core having burned away, and he was being pushed slowly back toward the wall. Astrasa had her gauntleted paw raised, the psycryst embedded in it looking almost as dull as a pebble before the blaze, and the leopardess's face was contorted into a grimace of concentration as she clung grimly to Fenris's back and tried to aid the Archivist.

It wasn't working.

Neither mammal was doing more than simply staying upright, and the floor beneath them was beginning to crack and buckle. The solid stone was shattering and heaving, pebbles raining down from the ceiling as the room began to fall apart. Eni looked back down at Tsar, but he had yet to move, his eyes still closed and his breathing shallow. She stood up, wrapping her fingers around Tsar's wrists, and she heaved with all her strength. The wolf felt impossibly heavy, but with tremendous effort Eni got him on her back, faltering as she tried to support his weight.

”Come on, Tsar, wake up!” she cried, yelling into his ear; his head had slumped over her shoulder, the tip of his nose bouncing against her chest with every lurching step she took.

She glanced desperately from Tsar's lifeless face to the Archivist and Astrasa as she painfully staggered toward the chamber's one exit with terrible slowness. ”Hurry, rabbit!” Astrasa called, ”Get him out of here!”

The floor underfoot was incredibly treacherous, tilting and splitting at crazed angles as it fell apart, and Eni tried to move as fast as she could. She slipped on a loose stone, stumbling for balance as she tried not to drop Tsar. His head lolled to the side and touched—

Eni was no longer warm.

The stifling heat of the chamber had given way to something awfully familiar, an endless and barren wasteland of snow stretching out around her, but she refused to accept it. ”Tsar!” she cried, desperately trying to ignore the chill in the air and the way her breath was visible, ”Tsar!”

Eni?

She felt Tsar's voice, rich and powerful in a way that had nothing to do with anything she could hear, as his question struck her the same way the Derkomai words had. She wasn't just perceiving her name; she was understanding what it meant to him, every possible nuance laid out for her in a grand display too vast to envisage. Eni could feel what Tsar had, from what he had seen when he first laid eyes on her to—

”Eni.”

His voice was hardly any better than a mumble, weak and slurred, but it pulled her out of the frightful recesses of her mind so instantly that her stomach lurched. Eni blinked, and as she turned her head to the side she caught a glimpse of Tsar's face, his eyes blearily at half-mast as he regarded her with evident confusion. ”Tsar!” she cried, clutching at his arms as she tried to keep her balance; the wolf's body was still a crushing weight on her back.

”Saw… things,” he muttered vaguely, clearly in no shape to do much more.

Eni looked ahead, where the distance between them and the exit seemed miles away, and then turned to where the Archivist and the Woemaker still stood. The leopardess seemed to be peeling runnels of flame away from the beams trying to strike the old markhor, but her efforts hardly amounted to anything, and the tip of the Archivist's metal staff was beginning to glow a dull red from the searing heat.

”Return to your slumber, Neira!” the Archivist cried, his breath coming in pained gasps even as the chamber rang with his voice, ”Dream of the eternal abyss where your beloved awaits. Forsake this world! He is no more!”

He is here.



Eni felt the words in her head, and from how Tsar stiffened against her back she was sure he had too. Even the Archivist and Astrasa reacted, their eyes widening before they redoubled their efforts, but as the fiery form continued to assault the Archivist something else came out of it. Eni caught a glimpse of delicate arms, burning white hot, pulling their way out of the flaming eyes. 

”No!” the Archivist cried, and he pounded the end of his staff against the ground.

An incredible surge of power rose at his command, boulders collapsing from the ceiling as the entire chamber shook, and the arms emerging from the eyes began pushing back ever so slowly. Eni could hear what he was doing, his magic pounding like the steady beat of a drum, and then Astrasa joined in, harmonizing to his efforts with a basso counterpoint. 

Little flickering flames began emerging from the Archivist's body, and Eni saw his face twist woefully as his fur and horns began to smolder. The force opposing them was too vast to push back, the sound of its magic far louder and more complex, and before she could think about what she was doing Eni reached out with her own power.

It slipped loose freely, groping across the distance separating her from the combatants as though it was nothing, and for a single perfect moment Eni could hear the beautiful sound of her own magic melding with that of the Archivist and the Woemaker. It was haunting and strong, and the Archivist seemed to draw strength from it, pushing back more ferociously until there was a tremendous explosion of light and sound.

The Archivist cried out as the terrible eyes vanished, and Eni saw why. His horns were gone, leaving nothing but scorched stumps, and patches of his fur were missing, revealing awful burns. Astrasa caught him before he could fall, gently cradling the markhor as she braced herself against Fenris’s side, and then her eyes met Eni's.

With the blazing and sinister presence gone, the chamber's only illumination was a few guttering flames scattered about the room, where dead Archons or their belongings had caught fire, but even in the dim light Eni thought she saw gratitude in the Woemaker's eyes.

”Master Arctus!” Eni cried, her heart in her throat.

She reached out with one paw and staggered, nearly losing her balance as Tsar shifted on her back, but there was no way to reach the markhor. The ground separating her from the Archivist and the Woemaker had split into a vast chasm, and with the distance separating them she couldn’t tell if her mentor was still breathing.

Eni’s vision blurred as her eyes welled up, and she blinked rapidly. ”Please, Lieren,” she said, looking desperately at the leopardess, ”I… I can help. Your magic… Or—or Fenris! Can you get here?”

Words spilled out of her mouth as she fumbled desperately for any possible answer, and the Woemaker smiled, looking almost kindly. ”He'll be fine,” Astrasa said in a low voice, ”Go, rabbit.”

As if by her command, the ceiling collapsed.

The tortured chamber had evidently had enough punishment; enormous blocks of stone fell and instantly cut off Astrasa's words. The room foundered, burying the Archivist and the Woemaker along with the Zezernak's corpse and the crypt, and Eni gaped at the piled stones even as the walls groaned and shuddered.

”No!” Eni yelled, panic filling her heart, ”No, please!”

”Please, say something!” she yelled, her voice breaking as she choked on the dust and grit swirling through the air, ”Master Arctus… Astrasa!” 

She strained her hearing, listening for any sign of the Woemaker or the Archivist behind the rubble, but all she heard was the rush of the canal surging to fill the space. Little spouts of water began to dribble into her own part of the chamber, and Eni forced herself to look away, feeling a lump in her throat.

”Better leave,” Tsar said quietly, his voice slightly stronger, and Eni took a steadying breath as she vowed to mourn once they were safe.

A single sob escaped her as she blinked back her tears, unable to speak. Tsar gently lowered himself off her back until he was upright, and he squeezed her arm as he turned to the exit.

His steps were slow and unsteady, lacking his usual grace, but he moved faster than Eni could have while carrying him. Stones still fell from the ceiling occasionally, and Eni could hear the grinding groan of blocks being slowly pushed out of position as they tottered dangerously. By the time the exit was only twenty feet away, Tsar was moving almost normally, and as he began hurrying Eni did the same, desperate to make it to the stairs before the room could entomb them.

But then, when they were within ten feet of the doorway, it suddenly filled with a burst of heat and light.

Tongues of fire reached hungrily outward as a swirling inferno appeared from nowhere, and before Eni could even try to reach for her magic a feminine figure stepped out of the fireball, which instantly winked out of existence. Eni had never seen a mammal like the one who walked out of the flames, but she instantly knew who it was, the feel of it utterly recognizable. The Visitor and Nergora were one and the same, a single being of incredible power who could have cast the Archivist and the Woemaker aside instantly if she had wanted to, and a creeping sense of dread came over Eni.

The Visitor burned and yet was not consumed, hungry tongues of fire licking at her muscular curves and emitting billowing clouds of inky smoke. The mammalian form she wore was completely nude, every inch of her brilliant body exposed, and the floor sizzled and ignited with her very steps. She almost looked like a fox, but she was much too tall and her short red-orange fur lengthened at her neck and head into a shaggy mane. Her ears were longer than a wolf's, coming to sharp points, but Eni didn't realize what form Nergora had taken until she met her eyes.

They were the same vivid blue as Tsar's.

Eni could see how her form echoed his in other ways, from their slim and powerful limbs to the way the strange being cocked her head to the side.

”What is it you seek?” Nergora asked, gesturing at Tsar.

She spoke Jarku with the same peculiar accent that he did, her voice low and warm. Tsar stood frozen, shock evident across his face, and the Visitor gestured at herself. ”What was?” she asked, and as she took another step forward her body rippled and shifted, heat hazes blurring her form momentarily before she became clear.

Nergora had become a hauntingly beautiful white she-wolf, her fur glowing as it reflected the light of the flames that still coursed along her naked body. What might have been?

The she-wolf's lips didn't move but her words appeared in Eni's head with the force of a hammer blow, the sweet and gentle voice nearly overpowering in its strength. Eni clutched at her temples, crying out in pain, and when she looked up the Visitor's form had changed yet again.

Perfect copies of Eni's eyes, blazing with shimmering gouts of flame, stared up at Tsar from a face that could have been Eni's reflection. The Visitor rubbed one paw along the gentle swell of her belly as she used the other to indicate herself. The dark patterns in the Visitor's fur seemed almost to twist and shift like the fire that billowed off of her bare form, and when she spoke it was in crisp Circi. ”Or what might yet be?” Nergora asked, a strange and knowing smile illuminating her face.

No more than four paces separated her from Tsar, and the wolf didn't seem capable of tearing his gaze away from her. Eni could feel the heat radiating off her double, but Nergora was utterly unperturbed, carefully watching Tsar's face.

”You.”

His voice was harsh as he answered, nearly spitting the word, and Nergora's smile widened. ”I await you in Invermir, All-King,” she all but purred, ”Where we shall unveil what you long for above all else.”

Tsar leaped forward, his body a blur, but his fingers closed around nothing. There was a faint cracking sound and a brief flash of warmth, and then the Visitor was gone entirely. Or rather, not quite entirely.

Her blazing footprints remained, their outlines still distinct.













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