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Chapter 57: Will and Vestiges

Updated: Apr 25

Tsar had insisted on continuing after his leg was bandaged, but his pace was almost leisurely. Eni doubted anyone else would have been able to tell, but although he didn't limp his normal grace was completely gone. He walked like any other mammal, his steps no longer noiseless against the smooth pavement of the road. Eni was bursting with questions, but the fatigue written across his features was visible even with no light except the stars above. His eyes and ears drooped wearily, and his breath came more raggedly than it normally did, and so Eni held her tongue. She knew she could wait a bit longer for Tsar's answers; she was sure he would soon be able to tell her every detail of what he had gleaned from the words of Procerus.

And the Archivist.

Thinking about her mentor was like an ice-cold knife being slowly pushed into her heart, and Eni shook her head. She felt a lump in her throat as she saw his face again, speaking to her for the last time. "Eni."

Her name was the final word the Archivist had said to her, and as Tsar echoed it she barely heard him. Eni nearly stumbled into the wolf, who had come to a stop, and he looked at her. "Need to sleep," he said, although it couldn't have been more than two or three hours after sunset, "Help this heal faster."

He gestured vaguely at his injury; it was an odd look with one leg of his trousers still missing, but it left the bandages exposed. Eni could see small splotches of blood seeping through here and there, but even the largest one was no bigger than an obol. "I… Of course. You need to rest," she replied, struggling to pull herself into the present.

Tsar only nodded absently as he slowly sank to the ground on the side of the road, carefully stretching his wounded leg out before him. The wolf undid his belt, letting his whip-sword and the pouches at the base of his tail fall the last few inches to the grass, and then set his equipment aside before wrapping his cloak around himself like a blanket. "Goodnight," he said quietly, and his eyes closed even as Eni answered in kind.

She stood for a moment, listening to his slow and even breathing, and then set about preparing for the night herself. She went through the motions without thinking, spreading her bedroll out nearby and unfolding her blanket. The night was crisp, the air almost cold, and the wind murmured through a grove of trees just distant enough that Eni couldn't see them in the dim starlight. She sat down, wondering if it was worth the effort to gather up wood for a fire, and something hard suddenly poked her in the stomach. Eni grimaced, digging through the pocket of her jacket for the offending object, but the instant her fingers touched cold metal she realized what it was.

The Archivist's badge of office.

She pulled it out, sighing as she looked down at it. The medallion glittered dully, its fine details not visible as anything more than murky shades of gray. Eni turned it back and forth, trying to catch the low light as she felt the metal leech the warmth from her paw.

"Do you hate him?"

Tsar's voice made Eni jump with a small sound of surprise; her heart suddenly pounded and she nearly dropped the medallion. "I thought you were asleep!" she blurted, just a touch too loud, and the vague lump that was the wolf's body shifted.

It was too dark to see his face, but his eyes were filled with stars as he sat up, seeming almost to glow blue with their own light. "Sorry," he said in a low voice, "You look…"

Tsar trailed off, apparently unable to find the right word, and Eni envied his vision. His voice had a touch more warmth than it usually did, and she wondered if sympathy was reflected in his normally inscrutable face. "Pensive," he finished at last, and Eni uttered a low chuckle.

"I am," she said, and a long moment passed while they both held their silence.

The only sound was the wind making its way through the nearby trees, and Eni struggled to put her thoughts into words as Tsar waited patiently, his head cocked to the side. "It'd… It'd be easier wouldn't it?" Eni said, the question coming out in a small voice, and her heart felt heavy as she spoke.

Her eyes felt full as she kept speaking, the words suddenly spilling out. "When I think about him… I see gentle eyes behind worn out spectacles. The smell of the library… Old tomes and blackberry vines… Always on him. He was… He was a friend who was always there for me. Always. It didn't… It didn't matter what. Even when it was late and he was tired, he always insisted he'd hear me out… He could be the only one in the lecture hall, but he… He filled it, with his presence and his voice. And if he was in the audience, he would listen so proudly… When…"

Eni's mind was full of memories, each of them painfully vivid. "He was good," she continued in a thick voice, "I thought he was good," and when she shook her head she felt tears stream down her cheeks.

She couldn't finish, not as sobs wracked her body, but Tsar spoke. "Wasn't fake," he said, "He cared."

"Doesn't that make it worse?" Eni asked, wiping at her face, "I'm just… I'm one hare. And Terregor was…"

She glanced over her shoulder, where the city was far enough away that it was nothing more than a small smudge of light. From where she sat, it didn't look as though anything had changed; the ruined skyline was too far away to be visible. "A sacrifice," Tsar finished softly, and Eni shivered.

She squeezed the sigil tightly, staring down at its polished surface. "How can anyone make that decision?" she asked.

"I've… had to choose before," Tsar said, his words slow and halting, "Sometimes you don't know what you've decided. Not until later."

"Like Drispas," Eni replied, as gently as she could.

"Yes," Tsar said, sounding terribly weary, "Ten thousand dead because I stopped to save a cub."

"That's different, though," Eni protested, "There's no way you could have known, but the Archivist…"

She jabbed one finger fiercely back down the road, toward what was left of Terregor. "He chose that," she said.

"He did," Tsar acknowledged, "But he believed the world's ending unless someone saves it."

Eni swallowed hard, grasping his point. Before she could speak, Tsar continued. "Everything he did… He believed that with all his heart. Procerus was… cynical. An opportunist. The Archivist thought he was doing the right thing," the wolf said.

Eni tried to imagine all the compromises her mentor must have had to make. Had he felt the same pain she had felt, watching as lives were lost to the plans of the Archons? Had he second-guessed every decision, wondering if the oceans of blood his actions spilled were truly kinder than the alternative? More than anything she wished she could ask him, and she rubbed her thumb along the engraved sigil at the center of the medallion.

“The good doesn't wash away the bad…” Eni said slowly, and she heard Tsar's tail thump against the grass, "But I suppose… I suppose his crimes don't erase what he did for me, either."

The wolf yawned widely, and his luminous eyes slowly vanished as his eyelids closed. "Don't have to forgive him," Tsar said, his words somewhat fuzzy, "Just have to live with whatever you choose."

"Thank you," Eni said softly, but the wolf was already snoring softly.

Eni watched Tsar for a moment, marveling at the ease with which he had managed to fall asleep; she felt sure she wouldn't be able to do the same as she considered what he had said. She felt as though a sliver had been pulled out of her, one she hadn't even known was there until it was gone. Whatever else he had done, the Archivist had been her friend, and without him she would have never been sitting on the side of the road with the Slayer a few feet away. Perhaps it would have been better for everyone on Aerodan if her mentor had never helped guide her to Tsar…

But perhaps not.

Eni took a scrap of fabric and wrapped it around the medallion before carefully stowing it away in her satchel. She couldn't take back the lives that the Archons had cost or undo the damage they had wrought, but she could stop the Visitor. It wouldn't balance the scales, not by any means, but it was more than nothing. And it was, she thought, what he had desperately wanted.

Her grief for the Archivist, for all he had been and all he had failed to be, felt as though its sharpest points had been blunted, and as Eni nestled herself under her blanket she remembered the final words he had left her with before her name.

Exceed me, as I always knew you would.

She vowed to try, and it was the very last thought to cross her mind before sleep claimed her.

When Eni woke in the morning, Tsar was already up, his trousers spread across his lap as he sewed the leg she had cut off back on. "I would have done that," Eni said as she blinked away the last of her tiredness, sitting down in front of him, but the wolf shrugged his shoulders.

"Woke up early," he said in a low voice, and Eni could see he was right.

The sun was nothing more than a red-orange sliver on the horizon, but even as she watched Tsar was putting the final stitches in place with meticulous care. He bit off the end of the thread and Eni stifled a smile; her own mother had done it nearly the same way that the wolf did. Tsar tied off the loose end, and then looked up at Eni. "How's your leg?" she asked; the injury was hidden by the clothes draped across his thighs.

Tsar nodded at a messy pile of bandages off to his side. "Fine," he said, but Eni shook her head.

"Let me see," she said, and when he didn't move Eni reached across the gap between them and pulled the trousers off his lap.

She dropped them almost immediately, her ears burning red as she yelped and turned away. "I'm sorry!" she stammered, unable to look him in the eye, "I didn't—"

"I don't wear anything underneath," Tsar interrupted, the words practically running together as he mumbled them.

"I should've—"

"It's fine," Tsar said roughly, "You can look now."

It took a moment for Eni's heart to slow and the blush to fade from the insides of her ears, but when she felt as though she had herself under control she forced herself to face him. Tsar had positioned his crumpled trousers strategically over his groin, leaving his wounded thigh exposed but not revealing any of what she had caught a glimpse of.

As her embarrassment disappeared, Eni found it replaced with utter amazement. The injuries, which had looked so terrible only the night before, had closed completely. There was no longer any raw exposed muscle; all she could see besides his dark fur and the white patterns that ran along the sides of his leg was unblemished pink skin. She could still make out the bite marks of where the rat-like creature had torn his flesh away, but she was sure that would only be true until the fur grew back.

She reached out, unable to stop herself, and brushed the tips of her fingers along the healed skin. It no longer felt swollen or feverishly hot in the slightest, and Eni pulled her paw away. "It took you longer to heal from the Lotophagi attack," she said, and Tsar nodded.

"Think it's because of you," he replied simply, "What you did last night…"

"You're not sure?" Eni asked, hearing the uncertainty in his voice, and Tsar shrugged.

"Never met another mage as strong as you," he replied, and Eni frowned, trying to sift through her memories of sharing Tsar's thoughts for anything that might have been responsible.

She realized that Tsar was looking at her expectantly and turned away, making sure she couldn't see as he stood up and put his repaired trousers back on. "Lots of ground to cover," Tsar said once he was properly dressed, "Should get going."

Eni didn't need to be told twice. She hastily gathered her belongings together, pulling a pair of rock-hard biscuits from her satchel and offering one to Tsar as they started back along the road. "We don't have much food left," she said, "We ought to stop at the next town we come across for some supplies."

He nodded absently, and as Eni tried to make her breakfast last she considered what lay between them and Idrun. There wasn't much; Geringweiss was further south than they were headed, and although Ghabarahata was more or less as far east as Idrun, it was even more southward than Geringweiss. Not a single city or town with more than a few hundred residents could be in their path, but if nothing else the terrain was easy. The road stretched off ahead, not nearly as wide as the Sovereign Highway but almost as smooth, and Eni was able to keep up with Tsar's pace without much effort.

"Tsar?" Eni asked once her biscuit was gone and she had rinsed out her palate with a few mouthfuls of water, "Can we practice something?"

He made a low sound of acknowledgement, turning to look at her with his head tilted expectantly to the side. His eyes glimmered in the light of the rising sun, which still wasn't high enough overhead to banish the low mist that clung to the ground. "I want to… Sometimes I can tell when something is true, the way you can," Eni said slowly, taking his silence as an invitation to explain, "I'd like to practice."

"You want me to tell truths and lies?" Tsar asked, and Eni nodded.

They walked along for a few minutes before he spoke again. "The whip-sword was chosen for me as my weapon," he said, and as he said the words Eni listened as closely as she could, trying to reach out and feel the very essence of them.

"That's a lie," Eni blurted, speaking before she could even consider what she was saying.

She wasn't sure how she knew, but she was sure that Tsar had chosen his signature weapon himself. "You're right," Tsar said, sounding pleased.

"Why did you choose it?" Eni asked, and Tsar considered the question for a moment.

"I was an… impetuous pup," he said quietly, "I saw a whip-sword, and when I wanted it was told I couldn't have it. That no one could master it. Didn’t get that one, but I never forgot about it, either."

Eni smiled, trying to imagine what Tsar must have been like in his youth. From the hesitant way he spoke she supposed that his personality had been rather different in those days, and she wondered how they would have gotten along if they could have met. "That's true," she said, the answer coming to her without any conscious effort.

Tsar nodded, and they continued on, the path slowly growing more visible as the sun continued to rise. "Could we try something harder?" Eni asked.

"Harder?" he echoed, mild curiosity in his voice.

"Well… Not in Word, I mean. Or Jarku. Something without any clues I’ll get because I speak the language."

"In el-Vimra, then," Tsar said.

"Is that the Elrim language?" Eni asked.

"Means 'our tongue,'" Tsar replied, and Eni was sure the words were true.

"Here," she said, scooping a pebble off the side of the road and giving it to Tsar, "Take this."

He looked at the rock, utterly nonplussed, and Eni explained. "Hold it in one of your paws. Don't let me see which one, and then say, 'It's in my left paw,' or 'It's in my right paw,' in el-Vimra."

"Can't," Tsar said, "Don't have words for left or right."

Eni stared at him a moment, sure that he had to be joking, but his face remained entirely serious. "Then… How do you give directions?" she asked.

"We use…" Tsar began, frowning as he groped for a word, "Like a compass."

"Cardinal directions?" Eni prompted, and he nodded.

"And the ones in between," Tsar added, "No left or right. All depends on how you're facing."

Eni thought she had a decent sense of direction, but what Tsar was describing meant that he had to know where he was facing no matter what. "Well, we're heading east," she said slowly as she considered what the language's quirk meant in practical terms, "So it'd be… your north or your south paw?"

"Yes," Tsar said simply, and she saw he was holding his paws together, his fingers moving as the pebble shuffled around.

Eni couldn't tell which one it was in as he pulled his paws apart, fingers clenched into fists, and held them at his sides. "Ii'nah fi mak-lab al-Shamel," he said, the words liquid and utterly alien to Eni's ears.

She closed her eyes as she tried to break the sounds apart, searching for the meaning behind them. As Eni squeezed her eyelids tight she mumbled the words to herself, stumbling over the unfamiliar vowels and consonants. As she spoke, she could hear something beyond what she was saying; Tsar's voice joined in far too vividly to feel like just a memory. Eni pictured the words, imagining how she would transliterate them into Nihu, and the symbols she had learned before any other written language seemed to dance across her mind. They shifted and flowed, changing color with musical semitones as they took on new forms, and Eni spoke without thinking.

"It's in your north paw," she said, "You told the truth."

Eni opened her eyes in time to see Tsar open his left paw, revealing the pebble he had hidden there. "Very good," Tsar said, and Eni let out a long breath.

She felt as though she had just sprinted a mile, her heart throbbing in her chest and making her vision shimmer, and nodded weakly. "Thanks," she managed.

"Better stop there," Tsar said, and she didn't protest.

They walked in companionable silence even as the world around them was alive with sound. Eni could hear the rustle of leaves and grass as insects and somnolent mammals trundled along, and several times Tsar lifted his head and sniffed at the air. To Eni's nose it only smelled like autumn, the first signs of decaying leaves mixed with the lushly green scents of what was still alive, and the wind was gentle. The early morning mist evaporated slowly as the sun continued to rise, but once it was bright enough for Eni to see more than a hundred feet in front of her she gasped.

The landscape was ruined.

Between Terregor and Idrun there should have been nothing more than endless plains of grass, with only the road and the occasional thicket of trees and shrubs to break it up. The road still stretched off ahead of them, gently undulating as it shifted with the mild changes in elevation, but a swath about sixty feet wide running southeast had been cut through the meadowlands. The grasses had been crushed into the dirt in a path that moved in an unerring line, as perfectly straight as a ruler no matter what it came across. Eni could see what had once been a centuries-old oak tree, its thick trunk shattered into splinters by the unstoppable force that had passed through it, and the devastation continued for as far as she could see.

"Did… Did those rat-things do that?" Eni asked, gesturing at the destruction.

"Smell them," Tsar replied, nodding, "Faster than us."

Eni couldn't tear her eyes away from what she was seeing. She could picture the creatures and their terrible clawed legs, relentlessly advancing as they churned the ground beneath them. "'Wordermund's army measured sixty thousand and six score, to a mammal armed with shields and spears,'" Eni quoted, the words of the emperor's conquest finding their way to her tongue, "'And Aerodan did tremble in the wake of their passage.'"

"Thuycedotes," Tsar said, identifying the long-dead historian who had been the first to write of Wordermund, "Might be more than sixty thousand of those monsters. Doubt they just went this way."

The image of a spider weaving a web sprang to mind, silken threads connecting Terregor to all the other cities of the Circle in perfectly straight lines. "Tsar?" Eni said suddenly, because as she stared at the path of destruction she realized there was something very odd about it, "Does this get wider the further it goes?"

The change was very subtle in what she could see, but it was more like an incredibly narrow triangle than a line. Over the course of a mile, Eni doubted it was more than another ten or so feet, but the Circle was more than two hundred miles wide. "It does," Tsar said, his head swiveling slowly as he looked from the northwest to the southeast.

"But why?" Eni asked, and the wolf frowned.

"They're getting bigger," he said, and although Eni wanted to protest she couldn't come up with any rebuttal.

"They… They must be headed for Ghabarahata," Eni said, her eyes widening with horror, "Maybe Tormurghast, but if their path keeps getting wider…"

She didn't have to finish her thought. If the monsters kept growing larger as they traveled, and they kept spreading out, they wouldn't have to alter course to plow through both cities as easily as they destroyed the meadowlands. Eni reached out and grabbed Tsar's arm. "We have to go faster," she said urgently, "We need to get to Idrun."

Tsar seemed almost distracted, his head canted up and his eyes half-closed, but at Eni's command he nodded and picked up the pace. Eni had no energy to talk as they very nearly ran, her satchel bouncing against her back with every step, and the sun reached its zenith overhead as the hours passed. They didn't stop for lunch; Eni dug out more of her dwindling supply of rations and tossed a bundle to Tsar. She couldn't even taste her own meal, utterly unable to focus on anything but the road ahead, and when Eni was finished she doubted she would have even been able to say what it had been.

Her feet ached and her breath came in gasps as the day began to dwindle, the sun sinking down over the horizon behind them and taking its warmth with it. At her side, Tsar was as steady as a machine, his face grimly set and his arms pumping in perfect time with his legs. His tail stuck out straight behind him, swaying as it counterbalanced his efficient strides, and Eni felt a stab of envy.

There was no sign that he was even getting tired, despite how badly injured his leg had been only the night before, but it was all Eni could do not to slow down. The road ahead of them seemed endless, and despite how long they had been traveling and how far they had covered there hadn't been as much as a single shack or hut on its side. A small forest came into sight, the path cutting through it, and Eni tightened her grip on her trident as they entered.

She doubted that there were any bandits lurking about, but the fading light of the sun didn't penetrate the branches of the trees very well. It was dark and eerie, every small sound seeming amplified by the thick canopy. What if some of the rat-things hadn't followed their fellows? What if some of them had, in fact, gone along the smoothly paved road? What if—

Eni's musings were cut off when Tsar suddenly unfurled his whip-sword from his waist, igniting the weapon as he lashed out with it. "There!" he bellowed, pointing with his free arm as his blade slashed into a maple.

There was a hiss and a pop as sweet-smelling sap boiled under the rending whip-sword, branches and fragments of the trunk falling free, but Eni couldn't tell what he was aiming for. As far as she could see, there was nothing, but as she heard a sudden cry of pain Eni recoiled in disgust.

The weapon's flaming blades had wrapped around something nearly too grotesque for words. It was perhaps a head shorter than Eni herself, but so utterly and terribly alien that there was no question it was a monster. 

Four eyes burned in its misshapen head, their sclera an inky black while their irises were a vivid red. A thick ridge of spikes ran from where its absent nose should have been and up between its massive ears, erupting out of its awful flesh. The creature looked completely skinless; it was slick and wet, seeming to be made out of thousands or millions of tightly coiled cables that came together in a parody of muscle. As Tsar pulled on his whip-sword, the creature tumbled out of the tree, the blade wrapped around one of its limbs.

It had six; its legs were thick and nearly barghest-like, but where a mammal would have two arms it had four. Its lower arms were surprisingly graceful, but its upper ones were nightmarish, forming enormous wings like those of a massive bat. It was one of the monster's wings that the whip-sword had entangled, and as it fell Eni saw that each of its limbs ended in terrible five-fingered paws.

When the monster had fallen perhaps ten feet, its terrible maw still open as it screeched shrilly, it jerked back hard with its captured wing. For an instant Tsar's feet left the ground, but then the flaming blades of the weapon severed its limb as though it had been made of wet clay. The wing flopped bloodlessly away, and in the stump left in the monster's shoulder Eni saw no bones or veins by the flames. The creature seemed entirely composed of those strange cables, and even as the monster hit the trunk of the tree and sprawled to the ground they began to twist and shift.

The monster was becoming ever so slightly smaller as its mass started reforming a wing, but before it could get far Tsar had already pulled back his weapon and was preparing to strike again. The wolf cried out, lining up a blow that would have caved the thing's head in, but then it did the last thing Eni would have expected.

It spoke.

"Hold, All-King," the monster said, its voice high and disturbingly child-like as it held out its limbs in a placating gesture, "There is much for us to discuss."

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