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Chapter 58: The One Who Sent Me

Updated: May 2



Eni took a half-step back, fumbling to raise her trident and point its prongs at the monster. Tsar's eyes narrowed, his arm steady as his flaming whip-sword remained upraised. "Is… Is it… Is it like the Lotophagi?" Eni stammered, trying to look around without glancing away from the awful creature.

She felt horribly sure that the squamous cables that made up the thing's body would start snaking along the ground, reaching up to grab her and force her mind back into an endless frozen void. A shiver ran down her spine as the temperature seemed to drop all at once, the air entering her nose with every breath suddenly frigid. The flickering light of the flames barely seemed to illuminate the creature's dark hide, and Eni tightened her grip on the shaft of her trident until it felt as though she would snap it in half.

The monster didn't move.

The creature's limbs remained utterly motionless, not wavering even slightly, and its chest didn't rise or fall whatsoever. The monster's four unblinking eyes were relentlessly focused on Tsar, and Eni couldn't hear a heart beating in its chest. It didn't seem possible for the monster to be alive, and even as cold fear seemed to creep out of Eni's belly, Tsar reached out with his free paw and gripped hers.

"No," he said, the word soft but firm, his fingers warm in hers.

Tentative relief flowed sluggishly through Eni's veins, her pulse slowing as she considered the being before them. "I am not like anything you have ever seen, All-King," the monster said.

Its enunciation was perfect and yet somehow terribly wrong, the words spoken in its strange voice without the slightest bit of variation. There was no emotion Eni could hear, just an utter flatness of tone far beyond even Tsar at his most inscrutable. 

"Wh— Who are you?" Eni asked.

She had almost asked the monster what it was, but the monster remained blandly composed. Its two inner eyes rotated slowly until it was staring at Eni, its outer eyes remaining locked onto Tsar, and Eni could feel her skin crawling under her fur. The creature's gaze was neither hard nor kind; it contemplated her like a mathematician puzzling over an equation. 

"I am Zathos," it replied, its teeth reflecting the fire as it spoke.

"You've followed us. Why?" Tsar asked, and his words had a dangerous edge to them.

His arm holding the whip-sword wasn't as eerily still as the monster at the base of the tree, but Eni knew the wolf would only need a fraction of a second to lash out at Zathos again. "I was ordered to follow the All-King and the Archivist," Zathos replied, blinking slowly.

The gesture was just as unnatural as every other part of the monster; its eyes closed sequentially, from left to right and then back again, three remaining open at a time. Throughout it all, Zathos's attention was coldly relentless, indifferent to how Eni’s face had fallen upon hearing her old mentor’s title applied to her. 

"How long has he been there?" Eni blurted, turning to Tsar; the wolf hadn't sounded even slightly surprised when he had asked his question.

"It," Zathos corrected, "Not he or she; I am neither. I have been following you since you left Terregor."

The monster spoke both pieces of information as though they were of equal importance, its voice remaining blandly dull. To Eni, Zathos sounded almost like a child reading out of a dictionary, speaking words it had no attachment to or investment in. "But why?" Eni asked.

"I was ordered to follow the All-King and the Archivist," the monster repeated, sounding exactly the same as it had the first time it said the words.

"By who?" Eni asked, and Zathos moved for the first time.

The monster's head cocked ever so slightly to the side in an uncanny imitation of Tsar, and Eni sucked in a quick gasp as she was sure Zathos was about to do something more. Instead, it only spoke. "You know who sent me, Archivist," Zathos said quietly, and Eni felt as though she was swallowing a lump of ice.

She was sure she did, the Visitor's words echoing in her head.

Your time shall come soon enough, leveret.

Tsar's arm slowly lowered, but the flames still blazed along the length of his weapon as he considered the creature. "Enough," Tsar said harshly, "What's your message?"

Zathos's head tilted smoothly back into a neutral position. "Irrelevant," the monster replied, blinking in the same unsettling fashion as before, "You cannot smell the truth in my words."

"Tsar?" Eni asked quietly, and the wolf's frown deepened.

He didn't speak, but he caught Eni's eye and suddenly she knew exactly what he was trying to convey. She could see what he meant etched into every line of his face, in all the little subtleties of how he held his body. For a moment, he was as clear as a line of text in a favorite book, something she knew and yet drank in anyway.

The monster was right.

Zathos was as inscrutable to Tsar as it was to Eni, and she knew exactly what he feared. If the creature could lie to them with impunity, there was no reason to trust it, especially knowing who had sent it after them. Zathos appeared utterly unperturbed, but Eni suddenly wondered if Tsar had been meant to catch it. Had its master instructed Zathos to make sure the wolf took notice? Perhaps the creature was trying to lure them into a trap, and Eni strained her ears for anyone else nearby.

The wind whispered placidly through the trees while insects chirped and chittered in the dark; the only heartbeat Eni could hear besides her own belonged to Tsar. But then, perhaps Zathos wasn't one of a kind. It made absolutely no noise as it laid in the dirt, its ugly face watchful as it stared up at her and Tsar.

"Speech is imprecise, All-King," Zathos continued, "Allow me to show you instead."

"How?" Eni whispered through numb lips, but she was sure of the answer even before the monster said it.

"The All-King may touch my thoughts. My mind cannot deceive him," Zathos replied.

Tsar considered the offer, his face a grimace of concentration, but Eni spoke before he could. "No," she said, and her voice sounded very small and as though it was coming from very far away, "If… If you're lying… If you're trying to fool him…"

She swallowed hard. It felt as though icy daggers were being pressed against her throat, not quite hard enough to break the skin. Her vision pulsed in time with her heart as all the moisture fled her mouth, but with the terror came a sense of clarity and certainty. "He'd be at your mercy," Eni continued, feeling Zathos's implacable gaze upon her, "And then… And then I would, too."

She let her trident go; as it fell she saw rimes of hoarfrost covering its shaft where she had held it. Dropping her weapon should have been frightening, but there was no more room for fear in Eni's heart. It wouldn't have been any help if Zathos tried attacking her, anyway. The monster was too strong, too fast, and she would be utterly helpless before it. All the facts pointed in one inescapable direction, and Eni tried to keep her voice from quavering as she spoke.

"It has to be me."

Zathos gave no reaction whatsoever; the monster continued its unsettling study with its burning eyes. "Eni…" Tsar said, very softly, and she shook her head.

"Please, Tsar," she said thickly, and the wolf tensed at her side.

The flames of his whip-sword sputtered out, the segmented metal chevrons icing over and plunging them into near-darkness. The road ahead seemed utterly fathomless, the night swallowing the path and everything that lay beyond. The starlight that filtered through the thick branches of the trees glowed within Tsar's eyes, two pale and welcome spots of color where everything else was a dull and washed out monochrome.

Zathos had very nearly vanished from sight, its body barely visible. The monster was like a void, completely still as it spoke again. "Your proposal is acceptable, Archivist," it said.

Eni stepped forward, her heart hammering wildly, but before she could take more than two steps Tsar stopped her. He placed his paws on either side of her chest, gently applying pressure. "Does that hurt?" he asked quietly.

He was an arm's-length away but felt much closer despite the gap between them. "No," Eni replied, and Tsar nodded gravely.

"Already healed," he said softly, and as Eni remembered the pain of her cracked ribs he continued, "You're stronger than you think."

Eni felt a mild flush of color in her ears, but the wolf's face didn't change as he let go and turned to Zathos. The monster had observed them in utter silence, and as Eni stepped closer it slowly lowered its limbs. She crouched down in the dirt next to the creature, her paw trembling as she pulled off one glove and reached out to touch its face. Its body was disconcertingly cold; Zathos seemed to be the exact same temperature as the surrounding air.

The monster's four eyes had all turned to her, watching impassively. The minutes dragged out, and Eni felt more than heard Tsar creep closer. She focused on her own breathing and pulse, but Zathos offered nothing in return, its body as still as a corpse. Eni reached beyond what met her fingers, groping for something more than slimy flesh, and—

The abyss surrounded her.

A biting wind blew past, tearing at her ears, and Eni's eyes watered immediately. The moisture began freezing at once and she blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. There was nothing to see, though, nothing more than an endless plain of frost-heaved snow under a sky the color of lead. The cold surrounded her, leaching away every bit of warmth, and Eni clutched her ragged clothes tight.

It's not real.

She told herself it was just her mind, but the biting chill of winter refused to leave her.

But what if it is?

Her own voice came to her slyly, whispering the words right into her head, and Eni squeezed her eyes shut. "He's standing right next to me," Eni said in a low and unsteady voice, her heart racing.

The flow of blood into her ears made them tingle with pain, the frigid air sapping away the heat of her body, and the words came again.

He left a long time ago.

An unwelcome memory of Tsar's face, twisted in contempt and disappointment as he—"He didn't," Eni said, and her tone was firmer, the hardness of it seeming to echo across the empty world, "He's watching me."

The sinister words tried calling again but Eni pushed them out of mind, refusing to listen as she trudged across the snow. Something had come into sight; there was a black speck off in the distance and she hurried for it. Her feet sank through, her toes going numb as she clumsily tried to run, but the shape grew larger and larger even as Eni's own voice shrieked futilely in her mind.

At last, the figure resolved itself into what could only be Zathos, but the monster's mental form was as bizarre as its physical one. It was a mass of fathomless black cables, squirming and twisting around each other as it tried and failed to hold a shape. The creature was nothing more than a pile that only vaguely resembled something living, four eyes staring out at her unblinkingly.

"Archivist," it said from a misshapen maw, the familiar word made somehow alien as Eni reached out for it, "I unveil my mind to you."

The cold stopped.

All at once, Eni was no longer outside in a boundless field; she was surrounded by a dizzying array of enormous gears and levers. It was an incomprehensibly complex clock the size of a theater, mechanical clicks filling the air as hundreds of thousands of components ground through their positions. The sound was sharp and yet somehow pleasant, and Zathos had resolved itself into a crude approximation of how it had first appeared.

"This is how you see me," Zathos observed, two of its unsettling eyes roaming the clockwork while the others bored into Eni, "Is it significant?"

Eni was about to protest that the monster had chosen the form that their world had taken, but even as the words were on her lips she knew they were false. She had given structure to their surroundings, and Eni frowned. "I… I thought it'd be a library," she admitted, and Zathos considered her blankly.

"Books," it said, "I have read many."

When it spoke, it sounded almost exactly as it had before, but there was something that hadn't been there before. "Do you have a favorite?" she asked.

It was an inane question, but if she was going to get a sense of how honest the monster was it seemed like a trivial one the creature would have no difficulty answering. "Yes," it said simply, and that sense of there being more to its words than before returned, "The Mother's Mantra."

Eni hadn't expected the monster to name a religious text, but she somehow thought Zathos was being candid. "How many times have you read it?" she asked, and it blinked slowly.

"Once," it said, "The text will not change."

"It won't," Eni agreed, smiling despite herself, "But what about the… the emotion of it? Your mood? You don't find something new each time you re-read a book?"

Zathos did not immediately respond. "No," it said at last, and in that single word Eni knew exactly why she had unconsciously given the creature's mind the form of a vast machine.

Zathos had no moods that could alter its judgment, just the rigid confines of its orders and pure logic. It would unerringly do as it was told until it could no longer act, and for a moment Eni felt a stab of pity for the thing. It had no doubts or hesitation; there was nothing to pull it off its intended course.

Or nearly nothing.

As the smooth sweep of gears surrounded her, Eni was sure that the monster was not quite as shallow as it appeared. The faint subtleties to Zathos’s answers within its mind were proof of that, that however muted its thinking was, it still felt. She stared at the creature, perceiving its dull black hide, and after a moment Zathos stepped smoothly back, its four eyes squeezing shut.

"You are luminous, Archivist," it said, and Eni was puzzled until she looked down.

The rags that had clad her body when she had first entered its mind were gone, but she was far from naked. Eni was clad in flames, shifting and strobing along her body as they radiated a heatless light that nevertheless burned like the sun. The colors shimmered and twisted through the entire spectrum simultaneously, one moment both purple and orange and the next a color that was somehow both red and green while also being neither. It was her very power, suddenly visible within her mind, and by comparison Zathos was nothing.

The monster was a dim and feeble light, flickering weakly as Eni eclipsed it, and Eni pulled her magic back in without even thinking about it. The gesture felt effortlessly right, something she could have never described in words and yet did without any consideration. The light surrounding her faded to something far weaker, the fire dying down to a dull roar that begged for release.

Zathos's eyes opened, its pupils reduced to narrow slits. "Thank you," it said, and Eni almost thought she heard genuine pain behind the words despite how rigidly the creature held itself.

"Show me your message," Eni demanded, and as she spoke a lever appeared out of the swirling mechanical chaos of the floor and filled her paw.

She pulled it before Zathos could speak again and gears flew into motion, whirling and rotating as part of the vast space reformed. Eni could feel that the monster was offering no resistance, but she realized it couldn't. If Zathos had tried fighting her control, the delicate gears would have ground to a halt, freezing as their teeth were stripped away and their axles shattered, and she forced her grip on the lever to remain light.

A hazy vision descended from the ceiling, one that was formed out of a swirling mass of components. Even as one version of Zathos remained at her side, watching her hold the lever, Eni saw what could only be another. The Zathos of the memory was represented by an endless array of chains and pipes bound together by brass strips, bowing before a figure that was somehow even more bizarre.

Whoever was giving Zathos its orders, it was inherently unstable, shifting and flowing between shapes with dizzying speed. At one second it was a falcon made of gears and the next an enormous she-bear of cogs. Before Eni could make out the face it had changed again, becoming a lithe she-wolf formed of tools and then a mammal far stranger than anything Eni had ever seen. The representation flowed smoothly between each form, panels opening and turning with the delicate grace of flowers following the sun, and it spoke with its arms.

Make sure they reach Invermir.

Although Eni had never learned sign language of any form, she could feel the tone behind the words, gentle and warm as the strange being gave Zathos its orders. 

Follow them. Clear them a path. If he spots you—or her; she's more perceptive than most give her credit for—tell them the truth.

There was a slightly fond teasing behind the words, a genuine affection that came across even when they were spoken with nothing more than gestures of ever-changing paws and arms.

The Cradle may be spared another Scourge, if only they find their way to Her. The All-King must know of the Forgotten and the Devouring of the one who Nergora—

The name hadn't even been spoken, but the instant Eni perceived it she was suddenly no longer alone in Zathos's head. The vision of the monster and the one who had relayed its orders broke apart, first seeming almost to reflect Eni before delicate components shattered and sprayed across the representation of Zathos's thoughts. The monster screeched in agony, tarry ichor flowing from all the openings in its awful face, and the destroyed remnants of its memory suddenly pulled back together into a terrible pair of eyes.

Metal twisted and shimmered as it caught fire, the blazing gaze glaring down at Eni with pupils of fathomless darkness wider across than Eni was tall. The luminous shroud that clung to Eni blew away, her own magic nothing in the face of the intelligence that was pressing into her mind.

Leveret.

The word cudgeled Eni so hard she fell back, feeling the gears of Zathos's mind giving way beneath her at the onslaught.

Impatience is a vice.

There was a sinister coyness to how the Visitor spoke, a velvety smoothness that dripped with anticipation as she chuckled. Eni felt as though she was being crushed beneath a boulder, her breath coming in wheezing gasps, and—

Her eyes opened.

The dark forest surrounded Eni once more, the dimness a relief from the awful burning eyes of the Visitor. Tsar was holding her up, looking urgently into her face, and although he was speaking Eni couldn't make out what he was saying. Her ears were full of the ringing echoes of the Visitor's mocking laughter, and her heart felt as though it was about to explode out of her chest.

"— it hurt you, Eni?" Tsar asked, his voice tinny and distant as her hearing returned, "Did it hurt you?"

His face resolved itself into a terrible expression of fury as he glared at Zathos, who was slumped motionlessly beneath the tree with its eyes closed. "No," Eni managed to croak, "No, not Zathos."

"Heard you screaming," Tsar said, and Eni could see that his hackles were raised and his teeth barred as he looked hatefully at the monster, "Pulled you apart."

Tsar had his whip-sword clenched tightly in one paw, and with every word he spat it trembled as though dying to cut Zathos into pieces. "Wasn't…" Eni managed, "Visitor. Saw the Visitor."

Forming words felt very nearly beyond Eni; a throbbing pain had set itself up in the middle of her head and a tiredness beyond exhaustion was filling her body. She doubted she could have lifted her arms if she had wanted to, and she found herself grateful for how Tsar was cradling her head in his lap.

Tsar's eyes widened before narrowing again. "She got in?" he asked, and Eni managed to nod minutely, feeling the roughness of Tsar's paw pads against the back of her head.

"Wasn't… Not a trick," Eni slurred, marshaling her jumbled thoughts, "I was… Almost too strong for Zathos. The Visitor…"

She didn't finish, but she could tell Tsar didn't need her to. "Is it… dead?" she asked, her eyes feeling too heavy to move as she switched her focus from Tsar to the monster.

"I am not," Zathos said suddenly, its eyes opening all at once.

Its blazing red irises looked somehow ragged and shredded, and its face was covered with the foul secretions that had oozed out of it. "Thank you, All-King," Zathos continued, "Your quick action saved the Archivist and me."

Its voice was as monotone as it had been before, but it spoke ever so slightly slower and softer and it didn't seem capable of keeping its eyes completely open. Tsar helped Eni sit up, letting her lean against his shoulder as he wrapped his arm around her for support and braced his tail against the small of her back. "It's right," Eni said weakly, "You saved us."

Even as she spoke, though, she realized that the words weren't quite true. The Visitor wouldn't have killed her. She might have pressed further, but she didn't want to harm Eni.

Not yet, at least.

But Zathos was an entirely different story. Eni doubted that the vast power behind the Visitor particularly cared whether the monster lived and died, not with its message delivered and its honesty assured. "Zathos can help us," Eni said, "Help us reach Invermir."

Tsar looked down into Eni's face in a wordless question, and she feebly groped for his paw until she found it and gave it a light squeeze. "We can trust it," Eni said, "I saw… I saw its truth."

She wasn't quite ready to describe what she had seen, not while her head throbbed and every muscle ached. "Idrun?" Tsar asked, directing the question at Zathos while not keeping his eyes off of Eni.

"Yes, All-King. I will ensure you and the Archivist reach your destination," the monster replied, and Tsar nodded slowly.

"You need rest," the wolf said quietly, his gaze gentle as he spoke to Eni, "We'll keep traveling when you wake."

Eni wanted to protest, but the idea of sleep had never been more appealing. Her eyes began drifting shut, but then Zathos spoke again. "The path may be dangerous," the monster intoned in its harshly child-like voice, "The Begotten are unbound. Ghabarahata has fallen."











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