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Chapter 56: The Loathed Self

Updated: Apr 18



"In the name of the acting Lord Warden, your vessel is being seized for relief purposes," the soldier said wearily.

The gondola was just at the shore, and a beaver had waded out into the water to meet them. There were a number of other members of the City Guard spread out along the rocky beach, meeting each boat of survivors that came their way, and the garble of their voices filled Eni's ears.

The guard who approached them was nearing middle-age, small streaks of gray lightening the brown fur of his face, and his City Guard uniform was torn and stained in places. The beaver spoke his decree while not quite meeting either Eni or Tsar in the eye, and from the tension with which he carried himself Eni suspected he expected them to try arguing the point.

"Fine," Tsar replied blandly, stepping out of the gondola and offering Eni his paw, his arm wavering ever so slightly as she pushed against it.

The guard blinked before straightening, a blandly neutral expression crossing his face. "Your city thanks you," he said, but the words had no warmth or cheer to them.

The beaver mechanically motioned with one arm toward a large tent further inland and added, "Please proceed to—"

The soldier's tired face suddenly creased into a frown and he abruptly stopped speaking. Eni could feel him scrutinizing her closely, examining her in the fading light of day, and then he spoke again. "Professor Siverets?" he said, and his features lit up; from how he ignored Tsar it was clear that Procerus's lie about her kidnapping hadn't made it to the rank and file members of the City Guard.

For an instant, he looked years younger, and he smiled as he thrust his paw out at Eni and gripped hers, shaking firmly. "Damn good to see those things didn't get you, ma'am," he said, his eyes bright.

"Thank you, corporal," Eni replied; he still hadn't let go of her paw and she was at a loss for what else to say.

The beaver's smile dimmed slightly, and when he spoke again his words were halting. "Did the… Have you seen the Archivist, Professor?" he asked, his face hopeful.

A lump appeared in Eni's throat and her eyes grew watery. It was all she could do to shake her head, but the corporal didn't press the point. "Well… I'm sure the old goat made it on one of the other boats," the beaver said with horribly forced good humor, "Him and the Lord Warden both. We've got the minister of sewers and sanitation calling the shots right now."

The corporal gave a bark that didn't sound anything like a laugh. "Could use someone more experienced at the helm, that's for sure," he continued with a sigh, and he let go of Eni's paw as he glanced past her head out toward the lake and the ruins of Terregor.

"But we'll put our faith in the Mother," the beaver added, his jaw setting resolutely, "I'd better let you go, Professor."

Eni wordlessly thanked the guard but he didn't seem to notice; he had attached a towline to the gondola and was pulling it toward a waiting group of soldiers, barking out orders for where they were supposed to go. She watched for a moment as they smoothly clambered aboard, lighting lanterns to ward off twilight as one of them began rowing back toward what remained of the city. Eni blinked away tears, and when her eyes had cleared she saw Tsar was staring at her. She staggered along the uneven stones of the beach and the wolf followed her silently, his cloak shrouding his body.

Other survivors milled about, none of them paying any attention to Eni or Tsar. A pervasive sense of grief and loss filled the air, and Eni could hear the plaintive cries of children begging for their parents and the keening sobs of mammals who had lost everything. Conversations washed past Eni, wild theories filling her ears as survivors tried groping for an explanation, and through it all was a tense undercurrent Eni knew all too well.

Fear.

Mammals tried convincing each other that they weren't watching the beginning of another Scourge. They tried to rationalize away the appearance of monsters as anything else, no matter how unlikely or implausible. But no matter what anyone said, Eni could tell what they believed. With terrible and absolute certainty, Eni heard the truth behind their words, and it made her heart feel unbearably heavy.

The Circle was doomed.

No one said it, not in as many words, but Eni knew it was what everyone was thinking. She couldn't blame them for being afraid, but she also couldn't join the huddle of refugees looking for a blanket or a warm meal. The road called, and Eni turned to Tsar. "Do you know where Invermir is?" she asked quietly.

The wolf considered the question as they kept walking, carefully avoiding the crowded mammals as they passed hastily erected tents. "It's…" Tsar began, frowning, and then he shook his shaggy head, "I saw her. But…"

Tsar didn't need to say the name for Eni to know who he meant, and she regarded him carefully. They had gone far enough for the crowd to have dispersed almost completely, most of the survivors staying grouped together near the shore and the light of fires and torches. Tsar reached out with one paw, his fingers closing into a fist. "Don't know," he said at last, "Only…"

"We have to go to Idrun," he said, his voice a blood-chilling whisper, "Something there."

Eni resisted the urge to shiver, reaching out and squeezing his paw gently. "Then that's where we'll start," she said, trying to sound confident, "Do you know what'll be there?"

Tsar didn't answer for so long that Eni was sure he wouldn't. The road that ran along the Nazdya River came into view, its smooth surface gleaming dully in the reddish light of the fading day, and only once they had been on the pavement for more than a mile did he speak. "Saw what I did," Tsar said quietly, "Over and over."

Eni gaped at him in horror, but he went on, fumbling over his words. "There's… Something I need to remember," he managed, "Why I went there. Why they tried there. There's a reason."

His scowl of frustration was nearly invisible as the sun sank over the horizon, but his tone was unmistakable. "Then we'll figure it out," Eni said, as soothingly as she could, but Tsar glanced away.

"Might be dangerous," he said, so softly that she could barely hear him, "For you. Maybe…"

He paused, sucking in a breath before he continued. "Wasn't just Idrun," he mumbled, his ears flicking down.

He stumbled a step, although the road underfoot was perfect, without so much as a single loose stone, and the wolf clumsily caught his balance. "Saw what I could have done," he said, his voice unsteady, "Saw what I…"

Tsar staggered again, his tail lashing at the road for support to stay upright. "What I…" he said, gasping, and Eni could hear his heart hammering far too quickly in his chest, "What I might do."

Every word seemed to cost him a tremendous amount of effort, and before Eni could do more than reach out for him Tsar swooned, his legs buckling as he fell heavily to the ground. He landed awkwardly on his side and Eni heard him take in a pained breath. "Tsar!" Eni cried, rushing to him, but he waved an arm feebly.

"Fine," he rasped, "I'm fine."

"No you're not," Eni said, kneeling down and looking him in the face.

His eyes faintly caught and reflected the moon and stars in pale rings around dilated pupils, and his breathing sounded horribly labored. Eni pulled off one of her gloves and pressed the back of her paw to his forehead before pulling it away almost immediately. "You're burning up," she said; the skin under his fur was impossibly and feverishly warm.

Tsar tried pushing himself upright, but nothing happened; he fell over again, yelping with pain as his leg struck the pavement. Eni's eyes widened as realization struck her. "That bite on your thigh," she said, "Show me."

The wolf stirred as he weakly tried to drape his cloak across his injured leg, but Eni pulled it from his paw and tossed it aside. The tattered cloak had entirely hidden the wound, but with it out of place Eni gasped in horror.

A ragged section of his trousers had been torn away, revealing a ghastly injury. The fur of his thigh and the leg of his trousers were soaked with blood, and chunks of his flesh were simply missing, raw and wet muscle exposed where the monster's maw had taken hold. The foul scent of infection met Eni's nose, and she wondered how she could have possibly missed it before, cursing herself for not paying enough attention.

"That bad?" Tsar asked, his lips twitching in a grimace.

"Tsar, this is awful," Eni said, "How did you… Didn't it hurt?"

The wolf's head fell back to the pavement. "Had worse," he said, still panting for breath.

"I'm going to have to clean it," Eni said, and Tsar's shoulders moved ever so slightly in what might have been a shrug.

Eni didn't dare leave him alone, not when he couldn't even move, so rather than hunt for firewood she simply unwrapped Tsar's whip-sword from around his waist and set it on the road, igniting the blade. At the sudden flare of light, Eni heard something rustling in a nearby tree, but when she sucked in a sharp breath and squinted out into the darkness she saw nothing. Eni gave the offending tree one final look, praying to the Mother that there wasn't one of the rat monsters lurking among the branches, but when nothing appeared she told herself it must have been nothing more than a somnolent beast.

By the dim glow of the whip-sword's flames, Tsar's injury came into horrible relief, and Eni winced at the sight. She reached out delicately, probing at the rest of his thigh as gingerly as she could, and even through his trousers the skin felt tight and inflamed. Eni pulled her knife free from her belt, wishing she had a pair of scissors, and she fit the tip beneath the jagged hole in his garment as gently as she could. "I can sew it back on later," she promised, trying to cut the fabric free without injuring him.

"Hard to reattach a limb," Tsar muttered, and Eni laughed at the joke.

Or at least, she hoped it was a joke. His voice had taken on a sleepy quality she didn't like, slurred and barely coherent, and his eyes were almost fully closed. At last, the leg of his trouser came off from the rest of his garment, and Eni pulled it free. "Come on, Tsar," she said encouragingly, "Keep talking to me."

"'bout what?" he asked in a low voice.

"Anything," Eni said distractedly, frowning as she looked at his leg.

The injury looked even worse without anything to conceal it, the skin puffy and sluggishly oozing congealed blood. The white patterns along the inside of his thigh were stained a rusty red, speckled with clots so dark they were nearly black. Tsar didn't say anything as Eni dug a small cup out of her satchel, filling it halfway with water from her canteen and then holding it over the whip-sword's flames. "Please, Tsar," she urged, "Just talk."

He swallowed hard. "You," he murmured, "Was you… She showed me."

"That's right," Eni said, trying to be encouraging as she anxiously waited for the water to heat up, "We saw her turn into me."

Eni didn't dare say the Visitor's true name; somehow even thinking it seemed like a terrible idea. She could still see how the strange being had appeared, taunting them as she rubbed a paw along the gravid swell of her belly, but Tsar shook his head minutely. "Not that," he said, "Before. In… my head."

His eyes opened ever so slightly, blearily out of focus, and his paw suddenly shot out and gripped hers. The pads of his palm and fingers were rough and feverishly hot, his grasp weak and tentative. "Saw you die," he whispered, “Over and over.”

His eyes closed again, and Eni fumbled for words. "It… It wasn't real," she said, and although she tried to keep her voice steady she couldn't keep her paw from trembling in Tsar's.

"Promise?" Tsar whispered, and his voice was heartbreakingly child-like.

"Ai-daek en ya'alf hu…" Eni replied, gripping his fingers and looking into his face, “Ya'daek.”

His dull eyes stared into hers, but it was as though he was seeing something past her. Eni felt Tsar relax ever so slightly, his paw slipping out of hers. "I'nai ah'bak, al-Runa," he replied in a dry and creaky voice, and then he coughed.

The little cup of water had started boiling over the flaming whip-sword, so Eni searched her satchel for a piece of soap and cut off a sliver with her knife. It was what she used for bathing on the road, but it was all she had, and she stirred the piece in until it dissolved. "This is going to hurt," Eni said apologetically, wincing as she moved the cup toward Tsar's leg, "I'm sorry."

She waited only long enough for the water to cool slightly before she started scouring Tsar's injury clean. Eni had expected him to scream and thrash in agony, but he didn't.

He whimpered.

His cries of pain were small and high, and his body shuddered but did not shake. He didn't seem to have the energy for anything more, and Eni worked as fast as she could, scrubbing away clotted blood until his wound stood out even more distinctly. The awful smell seemed to rinse away with the water, and as Eni looked at her rag more closely she realized that something viscous and oily was clinging to it.

"Venom," she said, although Tsar's only reaction was to take low and shaky gasps for air, "There must have been something in its fangs."

She started switching cloths more frequently, and despite the wolf's apparent inability to respond Eni kept up her half of the conversation. "That's not too unusual for a monster, you know. I suppose you do know, though. I mean, you've fought them all," she said with a forced laugh as she washed the sticky ichor away, "Isn't that right?"

He gave a low and shuddering moan. "You'll be fine once I get all this out," Eni said, her voice not quite steady, "You said you've had worse. And after everything that's happened today… Well, I understand. You should have told me, though."

"Al-Runa," Tsar murmured, and his face twisted in despair, "Almara."

"Is that a name?" Eni asked curiously, desperately hoping he could hear her, "Who was Alruna?"

She was sure that the second form the Visitor had taken, that of a white she-wolf who could speak without a voice, was the famous Princess Almara, but Eni had never heard of an Alruna before. Unless—

Tsar's head shook from side to side, his jaw falling open as he gasped, his lips working wordlessly. "Eni," he said, and all other thoughts flew out of her mind.

"I'm here, Tsar," she said, dropping her cloth into the steaming mug to grab his paw, "I'm here."

"Go," he breathed, "Run…"

Tsar didn't finish.

His head slumped to the side again, his breathing slow and labored. Eni stayed as she was, gripping his paw as she looked into his face, but he remained motionless. She had cleaned out his wound as best as she possibly could, but he didn't seem to be improving any. Eni told herself she hadn't been expecting him to sit up the instant the venom was washed away; surely he would still have to heal. But…

"You're getting worse," she whispered.

She didn't want to say the words. She didn't want to think about the possibility, but she couldn't deny it. His heart, which had been racing so quickly that its beats were almost too close together to hear distinctly, had slowed to such a sluggish pace that it didn't seem nearly fast enough to keep him alive. Even when he had said her name, he hadn't been talking to her; his eyes hadn't met hers and his paw had been completely limp.

Eni considered the wolf for a long moment, the wind sighing through the trees and grass as though it was mocking her helplessness. You couldn't help, she could almost hear, You haven't managed to learn anything from him.

"No," Eni whispered, "No, be quiet. He—"

It's your fault, Eni's own voice, malicious and cold, interrupted, He knew he had to be strong because you're weak. That's why he didn't tell you about his leg.

"That's not true," Eni said desperately, but her own words felt faint and distant.

The light of the whip-sword seemed to be fading, Eni's awareness shrinking down to nothing more than the harsh breeze blowing across the lonely road. Her vision throbbed and pulsed, sinister colors appearing and disappearing with every beat of her heart, and Eni shook her head to clear it as the voice went on.

It is and you know it. He should have left you to

Eni screamed without words. It was raw and primal, seeming to come from beyond her throat, and she poured all of her fear into her yell. The gale shouted viciously, but Eni couldn't make out what it was saying, not over her own outburst, and a savage pleasure filled her heart. Not to be outdone, the wind kicked up furiously, howling as it tore at her clothes, and Eni felt the force of it pushing her along the ground.

She scrabbled for purchase, trying to dig her blunt nails into the unyielding pavement as her ears flapped painfully in the unrelenting storm, and then her arm slipped free. She skidded across her belly, Tsar's limp body in front of her, and as her fingers reached out—

The road was gone.

Eni was in her apartment, and her heart ached as she took it in, utterly amazed. Everything was exactly as she had left it, as impossible as it seemed. She had seen a quarter of Terregor disappear, her building vanishing beneath the waves of Lake Linra along with so much else, but it was as though nothing had happened. "Tsar?" Eni called out as she sat up.

She had been lying on her bed, and she looked around her bedroom slowly. The shell comb her mother had given her was still on her dresser, and Eni picked it up, marveling at how real it felt. The delicate memento was slightly cool to the touch, sparkling with iridescence as she turned it this way and that, and Eni set it aside with a heavy heart. "It's gone," she whispered, but her room seemed to invite her to think again.

The destruction of Terregor felt dreamily unreal, nothing more than a half-forgotten nightmare, but although her mattress was warm and soft Eni forced herself to stand and pad toward the door. "Tsar?" she called again, listening closely, but there was no response.

There were none of the usual sounds of the city, the only thing meeting her ears was the distant sound of heavy breath. When Eni looked out the nearest window there was nothing but an inky void, utterly devoid of light and yet somehow fascinating. She tore her eyes away from the sight and began to creep down the stairs, listening carefully as she did. The breathing grew closer, and as she approached the first floor of her apartment a sickening metallic scent filled her nose.

Blood.

Eni froze where she stood, terror coursing through her veins as she gripped the railing. She wasn't quite far enough to see what was waiting for her, and she wasn't sure that she wanted to. Her fingers tightened but she kept walking, descending the stairs even as her legs threatened to buckle. The sound of something breathing got louder; the creature making the noise seemed as large as a barghest.

It's not real, Eni told herself, but it felt real. Beneath the awful smell of blood her apartment held the comfortable aroma of old books, and the railing in her paw felt just the way it had when she had last touched it. Motes of dust floated through the air, catching the light and swirling about, and Eni could have almost pretended that nothing had happened.

Almost.

The unfamiliar presence and her own memories couldn't be denied, and Eni steeled herself as she at last could see what waited for her. The scene was one she could remember vividly, and yet it wasn't.

Corpses were spilled across the floor, the bodies of a coyote, a ram, a pantheress, and a bison having fallen just as Eni knew they had. The faces of the fanatical Archons were twisted in pain and horror, their bodies trailing gore across the floor where they had come to rest, but they weren't alone. There were two more corpses that hadn't been there before, but Eni could instantly recognize the dead mammals. One of them was an old markhor, his fine clothes shredded and streaked with blood. A pair of broken spectacles rested crookedly on his nose, and his head was twisted at an impossible angle.

The other was a white Aberrant hare.

Eni's paws closed into fists as she stared in horror at her own face, the corpse's eyes dull and its mouth slack. Her double's chest had been torn open, her ribs exposed and cracked apart, and Eni clutched at her mouth as her stomach heaved. Sitting next to the body, nearly invisible in the shadows, was a monstrous figure that made Fenris look puny. 

He was undeniably male, his muscular body filling most of the small room from the tip of his massive head to the end of his tapering tail. The creature's muzzle was longer than Eni's entire head, filled with teeth that dripped blood, and pale eyes burned horribly above that fearsome maw.

The thing was looking at what he had done, his dagger-like claws digging into the floor, and then he raised his maned head and howled. Eni's fur stood on end as she watched the beast make his awful cry. The mournful sound filled her ears, but it wasn't mindless. There was terrible pain in the wordless plea mingled with enormous remorse, and it made Eni want to weep.

"Tsar," she said, her voice thick as she approached the wolf, "You didn't do this."

The beast made a strange snuffling noise as he turned his shaggy head and looked at her, his massive blue eyes boring into her.

I could have.

She heard Tsar's words in her head, and she nodded even as she closed the distance between them. It was almost impossible to tell where the shadows ended and the wolf began; his fur absorbed all the light that fell on it. "I understand," she said quietly, "Ever since Idrun… You've been afraid of what you might do. Of…"

She swallowed, remembering what Tsar had said in his delirium before collapsing. "Of what you might have done somewhere else," Eni continued, and the wolf looked shamefully away.

Eni was close enough to touch what Tsar had become, and she didn't hesitate. She pressed one paw against his massive flank, feeling his barrel of a chest rise and fall with each of his breaths. "You didn't," she said firmly, "I know you didn't. And this…"

Eni gestured at her own corpse, not quite daring to look at her dead and unsettling face. "I know you won't," she said, and when Tsar still couldn't meet her eyes she grabbed either side of his gigantic muzzle and pulled.

His face was slick with blood but she kept her grip, firmly turning his head until he was looking at her, his puffing breath warm against her face. "Never," she said gently, and she closed her eyes, pressing her forehead to his nose.

"What if you're wrong, rabbit?"

Eni blinked, reality seeming to lurch around her. She had heard Tsar speak with her ears, not in her mind, and his words were weak and feeble. She was back on the road out of Terregor, a sky full of twinkling stars above her, and Eni found herself flat on her stomach. Tsar’s whip-sword was still burning, coiled in a meandering loop on the pavement. Her right paw was near Tsar's injured leg; the wolf was sprawled on his back, his head raised slightly as he looked at her.

She stirred, her body feeling numb and heavy as she unsteadily sat up. There was something clenched in her right paw, something small and smooth like a pebble, but she ignored it, instead meeting Tsar's gaze. "I'm not," Eni said with all the conviction she could muster, and Tsar nodded slowly.

He still looked weak, but his breathing was more regular and he seemed far more focused. Eni looked to his leg, which was still a terrible mess, but it was no longer swollen with fever. "How do you feel?" she asked, and Tsar let out a long breath.

"I'll live," he said quietly, "You got it out."

He nodded at Eni's closed fist, and she looked at him in puzzlement before opening her fingers. "Got what—" she began to ask, but when she saw what was in her palm there was no need to say anything more.

A blood-soaked tooth was nestled in her grasp, a tooth that hadn't come out of a wolf or a hare. It was sharp but oddly shaped, curving sinuously as it split apart to come to three points. "Must have broken off in my leg," Tsar said, and Eni dropped the fang as though it was too hot to hold.

"I didn't— I don't remember pulling it out," she said, staring down at it, "I didn't even see it."

The tooth glittered menacingly in the light of the stars, pale as milk beneath the haze of venom that covered its wicked ends. Tsar shrugged as though he was utterly unsurprised. "Metaphor," he said simply, "What you did in our heads…"

He trailed off, leaving the thought unspoken as he glanced away. Eni remembered how he had described mentalism, the last time they had practiced, and she felt as though she grasped what he meant. Somehow, even as her conscious mind had turned inward, she had been aware of the tooth embedded in Tsar's leg and pulled it out. It both was and wasn't comforting to consider, and Eni frowned, wondering how much of what she had seen had been drawn out of her own mind and how much had come from Tsar.

"Thank you," Tsar said softly, and as he pressed his palms against the pavement to force himself upright Eni spoke.

"You're not going anywhere yet," she said, going for the strongest tone she could manage, "I still have to wrap that."

Tsar didn't protest as Eni gathered up some bandages and moved closer, covering his injured leg as carefully as she could. Tsar didn't say anything, silently allowing her to perform her ministrations as she tried to be as delicate as possible, but she saw him wince slightly whenever her paws brushed against the inside of his thigh. "Sorry," she said.

"It's fine," Tsar said, his head tilted down as he watched her work.

He waited as she finished up, neatly tying the bandages with a flourish, and then he spoke again. "Are you afraid?" he asked.

Eni surprised herself by smiling. "Of course I am," she said, and her eyes began to well up, "I don't know how we can stop Ne— the Visitor by ourselves. I'm… I'm afraid we might not be enough."

Tsar was silent for a moment. "You're not afraid of me," he said.

His words weren't quite a question, but they lacked the absolute certainty of a statement. Eni reached out and gave his paw a quick squeeze. "I'm not," she said, and he nodded.

"Shouldn't be afraid of her, either," Tsar said slowly, "Chryson lied."

"He lied?" Eni repeated, and Tsar nodded.

"Truth and lies," he replied, "All jumbled together. We can beat her."

His voice was hard with certainty, when Eni met his gaze that same confidence was written in every line of his face.

"We can," she echoed, and for the first time since Terregor Eni felt the faint glow of hope in her chest.











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