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Chapter 59: Dark Roads

Updated: May 9



Protests died on her lips as Zathos regarded her dispassionately with two of its eyes, the others looking at Tsar. "The outer walls were undermined by the rajah," the monster said, its voice as bland as ever, "The Begotten broke through approximately fifty-two minutes ago."

"No," Eni said, but her stomach sank as she watched the monster's relentless face.

She slumped against Tsar, her fingers curling into a fist. "Why didn't we see?" she asked miserably, "We were there in the tunnels. We could have… We…"

Eni couldn't say anything more, the words refusing to come out. "Your presence was irrelevant, Archivist," Zathos said, "The damage to the walls' footings was identified by the City Guard when they killed the rajah."

"Never enough time," Tsar said quietly.

"Repairs were underway but incomplete when the Begotten arrived,” Zathos replied.

The monster was utterly emotionless, its eerie voice bluntly neutral even as it spoke about what had to have been the loss of thousands of lives. "But how do you know?" Eni asked, wildly clutching for an alternative, "You've been following us since we left Terregor. Maybe that was what they were supposed to do, but… but those walls have stood for millenia. No one's ever taken Ghabarahata by force, not even Wordermund!"

She turned to Tsar, looking him in the eye as she clutched his paw. "Maybe—" she began, but Zathos interrupted.

"I watched the walls from the sky, Archivist," the monster said, "Ghabarahata has fallen."

"What happens next?" Tsar asked, his voice low but hard.

"The Begotten are consuming the city," Zathos replied, "Once they have attained sufficient strength, they will overrun the Circle and beyond."

Eni slumped to the ground, her weariness returning with a vengeance. "Unless we stop their master," she said, but it was a feeble hope to cling to, not in the face of an army that could move so quickly.

"Yes, Archivist," Zathos replied.

"How long?" Tsar asked, and the monster's answer was immediate.

"Some of the Begotten will have already left Ghabarahata. The rest will be prepared to leave in no more than a week," Zathos said, and Tsar nodded.

"Do you sleep?" he asked abruptly, and Zathos blinked slowly.

"I cannot," the monster said.

"Then we keep going," Tsar said.

"As you command, All-King," Zathos said, pushing itself to its feet with its wings.

The one that Tsar had cut off hadn't fully regenerated, but the monster's movements were as mechanically perfect as before. Tsar stood up with far more grace, looking down at Eni as he added, "I'll carry you."

"Tsar…" Eni began, but before she could say more his tail had wrapped around her waist and gently lifted her.

He neatly placed her on his back, her legs straddling the thick base of his tail, and wordlessly motioned for Eni to wrap her arms around his neck. "Used to stay awake for weeks," Tsar said, his voice calm and level, "Get some sleep."

"Tsar, no," Eni said, quite softly, "You can't do that anymore.”

For a moment, the wolf stood in place, and Eni could feel Zathos's steady gaze upon them both. She suddenly wondered if she should have brought up Tsar's diminished abilities in front of the creature, but it was as unreadable as ever, apparently perfectly patient to wait for a decision. Eni squeezed Tsar's neck as gently as she could between her arms. "I understand," she said, "I know why you didn't sleep."

Her words were coming out thick, colored by exhaustion and emotion, and she hoped Tsar could hear every ounce of meaning behind them. She thought she did, at long last, understand the terrible purpose that had kept the Slayer moving relentlessly onwards. Stories, even her favorite ones, could dress up his motive with pretty words. They could make his nobility inspiring, an example for everyone to take to heart. There was, however, a blunt truth too ugly to say baldly that at last Eni fully grasped.

Every second he wasted, innocents died.

It had been true during the Scourge and it was true again with the monsters devouring Ghabarahata. Sleep had been a luxury Tsar couldn't afford when he was at his peak, one he had turned down in just the same way as feasts or parades in his honor. Eni had no idea how many mammals would die with every hour they delayed before reaching the Visitor and putting an end to her madness, but they had to stop for one simple reason.

Tsar was no longer in his prime.

Without magic, he was weaker than when he had reshaped the course of history. Eni had only gotten hints of what he had been, decades ago, but all that was left of that fearsome warrior was the ragged wolf whose back she clung to. She could feel him tremble ever so slightly under her weight and knew that however well his leg had appeared to heal it was still short of being fully restored.

Eni pressed her head into the back of his, his mane tickling her nose and filling it with the scent of his musk. "We need to get there first," she murmured, her eyes drooping shut as she turned her head and whispered into one of his ears, "Lose more time if you collapse again."

There was a long pause before she felt him nod slowly, and she could practically hear his frustration and shame boiling off. She wanted to do more, wanted to somehow reassure him that it wasn't his fault that he was victim to the same demands of the flesh as any other mammal, but she felt as though her mind was being poured into a deep well. Her thoughts slowed and stretched as she sank into her exhaustion, Tsar's voice seeming to come from very far away as he spoke. "Keep watch," the wolf ordered Zathos, "We're staying the night."

The monster's answer betrayed no surprise in the change in plan, its voice as unsettling as ever. "As you command, All-King."

A faint inkling of curiosity came over Eni at the monster's use of the honorific, which seemed as though it was somehow important. She tried to tease out the meaning, grasping for what had stood out, but the idea escaped Eni as sleep at last claimed her.

Morning came with an unpleasant abruptness that made it feel as though no time had passed at all. Eni still felt weary down to her very bones as a ray of the rising sun found its way through the thick canopy of the forest and into her eyes, but she couldn't ignore the light. Her blanket fell away as she sat up, and Eni saw that although her jacket had been removed and placed under her head as a pillow, she was otherwise still fully clothed. Clearly Tsar had been responsible for tucking her into her bedroll, but she couldn't remember him taking her off his back let alone setting up camp.

She looked around and spotted the wolf at once; he was quietly packing up his own belongings, clearly getting ready for the road ahead. Zathos was standing where Eni had last seen it, right against the trunk of a tree, and Eni had the feeling that the monster had remained perfectly motionless the rest of the night. Seeing Zathos brought back the memory of its grim pronouncement, and Eni swallowed hard.

Tsar raised a paw, silently wishing her a good morning, and Eni returned the gesture before hastily packing her own belongings. The wolf had set her trident at her side, and as she scooped up the weapon her eyes fell to the spot of ground where Zathos's severed wing had landed. Its blurry outline looked burned into the mosses and grasses that surrounded the trees of the forest, but all that was left of the limb was a powdery black dust.

"Are you ready to go?" Eni asked, and all four of the monster's eyes smoothly swiveled toward her before it answered.

"I have recovered," Zathos said, and it spread both of its wings wide.

The span was enormous; from tip to tip it had to be nearly nine feet across, and it made the monster's body look even smaller. "Are you sure?" Eni asked, although she couldn't see any flaw or weakness in the tightly woven cables that formed its limbs, "After the Visitor showed up, you looked… hurt."

"I was," Zathos said, "But pain is only relevant in the moment. After I have been alerted to injury, it serves no further purpose."

Somehow, the casual and nearly dismissive way that the monster spoke of pain made it even more alien than what Eni had seen in its head. "Let's go," Tsar interjected, and as he set off on the path Eni fell into step to his right. Zathos did the same, going to Eni's side as it walked on four of its legs with its wings tucked against its back.

"Can't you fly?" Eni asked, looking down at the monster; although it was perhaps a head shorter than her when it stood upright on its rearmost legs, it barely came up to her waist while walking.

"After reforming I no longer have sufficient energy to sustain flight," Zathos answered, and Eni slung her satchel forward and began rummaging through it.

She pulled forth three bundles from their dwindling supply of rations, tossing one to Tsar before offering another to the monster. Zathos considered the neatly wrapped hardtack with two of its eyes, the others boring into Eni's. "I cannot eat that, Archivist," it said.

"You don't eat?" Eni asked, still holding out the meal.

"I cannot eat that, Archivist," Zathos repeated, blinking slowly.

"It's fine if you take it," Eni urged, "We all need to keep going."

"You misunderstand, Archivist," Zathos replied, "I am incapable of eating it."

"Oh," Eni replied, tucking the biscuit back into her satchel; she realized that the monster almost certainly lacked a stomach in the same way it apparently had no heart.

After another step, as she began unwrapping her own breakfast, another question occurred to her and she asked, "What do you eat, then?"

"Theurgy," the monster replied, and a chill ran down Eni's spine as she was suddenly and powerfully reminded of Ceslaus and the grim feast he had put forth.

Tsar had been ignoring their conversation, his head remaining resolutely forward, but at Zathos's response his head snapped to the side. "Were you there?" he asked harshly, "With the Zezernak? The Lotophagi?"

He practically growled the words, his face twisted suspiciously at the monster, but Zathos answered as calmly as ever. "No, All-King," it said, "Our paths have not intersected before I began following you in Terregor."

Tsar frowned, the expression more of a grimace as his pale eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything Eni interrupted as a piece suddenly fell into place. "Those monsters from Terregor," she said, "The Begotten, you called them. Procerus had a diagram in his office. It said something about theurgy. Some kind of…"

Eni closed her eyes, trying to remember exactly how the text had read. The words seemed to float before her, and she spoke. "'The release of theurgy from a slain—' is how it started. It was too badly faded in the middle, but then it read '—similar such alternate sources.'"

She looked at Zathos expectantly. "They… They consume theurgy, don't they? The same way you do?" Eni asked, nearly fumbling over her words in her rush to get them out.

"Still innominate, Archivist," Zathos replied, "I am unaware of how the Begotten function."

"Each other," Tsar said slowly, "They should be eating each other."

His frown had vanished, replaced by a more thoughtful expression, and he glanced at Eni. "Monsters don't… They shouldn't work together," he said haltingly, "During the Scourge… if… two monsters met…"

Tsar's eyes had taken on a distant and faraway look, and he gestured vaguely, as if to a scene visible only to him. "They'd fight," he said, "Winner would devour the loser. Absorb its theurgy and grow… Bigger, stronger, more powerful."

"Those things… They only eat mammals, don't they?" Tsar asked quietly, looking into Zathos's implacable face, and Eni's stomach dropped in horror.

Everything Tsar was saying made terrible and perfect sense, and she was suddenly sure she understood what had been the key point of Procerus's illustration of a Begotten. Someone had figured out how to make a monster that wouldn't fight its fellows. Someone had designed the perfect weapon, a swarm that only grew stronger the more it fought.

The Visitor.

The strange being was older than Tsar, older than Wordermund, older even than Abraxas. She had plotted and schemed for thousands of years, and although Eni didn't know what the Visitor was waiting for she could make a few guesses. Perhaps it had been a Scourge, for the thinness to the world that Tsar had once described. Perhaps it had been Tsar himself, for someone who had whatever the Visitor's previous followers lacked. But whatever the Visitor wanted, Eni was absolutely certain that they didn't dare let her grasp it.

"Your hypothesis is consistent with what I have observed, All-King," Zathos said, its answer to Tsar's question interrupting Eni's terrible musings.

"And… And the monsters we fought?" Eni asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer, "Could… Could She have somehow consumed their theurgy when they died?"

It was the only possibility that made any kind of sense to Eni, but it was almost too terrible to contemplate. She had no idea where Invermir lay in relation to Idrun; perhaps it was buried underneath the ruined village, or perhaps it was somehow on an entirely different plane of existence, as separate from Aerodan as two different pages of a book. Maybe it was something even stranger, but no matter where the Visitor was waiting, it was a very long way from both Ctesiphon and Terregor. If she could reach out so effortlessly, it spoke of power beyond anything Eni could even imagine.

The gravity of the question seemed utterly lost on Zathos, who replied with the exact same words it had used less than a minute ago, spoken in exactly the same way. "Still innominate, Archivist," Zathos replied.

"What about you?" Tsar asked harshly, "Do you eat mammals?"

The monster cocked its head to the side, its long ears and the spines running between them flicking back in an unsettling imitation of Tsar himself. "Only the somnolent," it replied, its even voice betraying no anger or hurt, "The Wright insisted."

"Who?" Eni asked, and Zathos's head leveled out.

"You saw her, Archivist," the monster said, and Eni remembered the strange and shifting form of the bizarre creature she had seen in the monster's mind, "The Wright commanded me to assist you against the Risen Mother."

Zathos tilted its head back, and in the dim light of morning Eni saw for the first time that there was a collar around its neck. It was a slim and graceful ring of woven wrought iron quite unlike anything she had ever seen before; no artifact Eni had ever seen from anywhere on Aerodan had a similar design. The shape was nearly organic, an impression that was only heightened by the way the cables that formed the monster's neck wove in and out of it, somehow both delicate and undeniably solid.

"She made that?" Tsar asked, and his face had softened; he looked almost awed and Eni wondered if there was some magic to the collar she was blind and deaf to.

"The Wright forged it when I was created," Zathos replied, and Eni thought it almost seemed proud.

She wasn't sure what gave her that impression; the monster's intonation was as blandly perfect as ever, and its feature remained utterly expressionless. Perhaps it was a lingering effect of seeing into Zathos's head, but Eni was more sure than ever that the creature did have emotions, however subtle they were.

"Did she make you?" Eni asked, "And the Begotten?"

"She… wouldn't," Tsar said softly, the words uncertain and very nearly a question.

He seemed almost surprised that he had spoken, his brow furrowing as he gazed thoughtfully ahead. "The All-King is correct," Zathos replied, "The Wright did not construct monsters."

"Who did?"

"Still innominate, Archivist," Zathos replied.

Eni frowned, and they walked in silence for a bit longer, Tsar setting a brisk pace. She picked at her dry biscuit; Eni had quite lost her appetite but she forced herself to eat, trying not to imagine what the beasts were doing in Ghabarahata even as they pressed on for Idrun. She felt sure they were close to uncovering whatever terrible purpose the Visitor had in mind, and another thought occurred to her.

"Zathos?" she said, "Why do you call Tsar the All-King?"

The monster didn't seem to use names for anyone, just titles, but among all the many titles the Slayer had earned across his long years of service to the world, Eni had never seen him referred to as the All-King. However, Zathos hadn't been the first to use the appellation; it had been the second.

After the Visitor.

The monster looked at Eni and then responded. "He is the All-King," it said.

"But… What does that mean?" Eni asked, "Is it… a reference to Raenir? From the Mantra?"

"The All-King is far beyond the Wolf-Father," Zathos replied, and although its voice was as blandly precise as ever it blinked slowly at her.

Eni was sure that Zathos didn't comprehend what she was getting at, its odd mind puzzled by her own lack of understanding. She groped for a way to explain herself, for some connection she could make to ask about the unfamiliar title, but then a terrible possibility occurred to her. "Do you mean…" Eni said, "It's a translation? From… From Derkomai?"

"Yes, Archivist," Zathos replied, and Eni's mouth went utterly dry.

Derkomai was supposed to be a language of absolute truth, one where every word meant something so exactly that there was no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Eni had some of the strange tongue etched into her mind and she knew it would never leave her, the odd syllables that had burned in the air and been spoken in the catacombs under the Terraces of Gorin as vivid in her memory as when she had first seen and heard them. And if the monster was telling the truth, then it didn't matter what she called Tsar, or even what name his own mother had given him.

He was the All-King.

The title was undeniable and irrevocable, something that was as much a part of him as his shaggy black fur and his pale blue eyes. It seemed a cruel burden to add to the ones that the wolf already carried, and Eni felt shamefully glad that Zathos didn't have a Derkomai title for her. She was sure she didn't want to hear her entire being summed up in a single epithet, and Eni swallowed all the other questions she wanted to ask.

The rest of the day passed in near total silence, Zathos never speaking except in response to a question. Tsar and Eni ate lunch while still on the move, but when she had asked if Zathos needed to hunt for a rodent or some other somnolent creature, it had bluntly declined. "The Begotten have consumed all they could in their path," had been its reply, "Everything that could flee them has."

The monster had been right, too; it seemed to Eni that she didn't hear nearly as many insects buzzing about, and although the forest should have been full of all sorts of small mammals with dim and unintelligent minds scurrying through the underbrush there was almost silence. The wind was their lone companion, moaning mournfully through the trees as though it missed the life that should have been there.

Eni supposed that Tsar might have been holding his tongue out of a distrust for Zathos, but she thought the reason for his silence was far simpler. The wolf looked utterly consumed by his own worries, and the closer they got to Idrun the more distracted he seemed. Every attempt at conversation Eni made died an awkward death, Tsar's answers slow and short, and at last she gave up.

Perhaps it was just as well, because Eni didn't have it in her to talk for long either. Tsar maintained a brutal pace, pausing only long enough for sleep each night, and the time passed in a haze of exhaustion. Eni was always too tired each night to even try making entries in her journal, let alone practice her magic, and mornings always arrived painfully fast. Her sleep was mercifully dreamless, but although Tsar never spoke of it she had the sense that he couldn't say the same.

At dawn each day he looked just as exhausted as she felt, bags under his eyes and his gaze dull, but he was always the first to be ready to press onward. Zathos was utterly tireless, as still as a statue while Tsar and Eni slept and it maintained its vigil. "This is the last of our food," Eni said, shortly after noon on the third day since they had left Terregor.

She tried giving Tsar one of the two remaining packages, but he pressed it back to her. "Not hungry," he said; it was the first time he had spoken all day, "You eat it."

Eni couldn't deny that it was tempting; since they had started their race for Idrun she had needed to take her belts in a notch to keep her trousers up, her stomach feeling constantly empty. Instead, she squeezed his paw and tucked it back into her satchel. "I'll save it for you," she said, "In case you change your mind."

The wolf made a low and noncommittal sound in the back of his throat, disappearing back into his own head as his focus once more went forward. Eni tried to make her own rock-hard biscuit last as long as she possibly could, slowly grinding off bits of it with her front teeth as they kept walking. She made it almost half an hour, sipping from her canteen every now and then, and as she finished Tsar spoke without prompting for the first time in days.

"Almost there," he said in a low voice.

"At our current pace, we will arrive by sunset,” Zathos replied.

Eni squinted off into the distance, but even though the day was clear and crisp she couldn't see anything. They had left the forest the previous afternoon, and all that lay ahead of them was rolling grassy plains and the smooth road. "Would you like me to scout ahead, All-King?" Zathos asked, "I cannot fly to Idrun, but I would be capable of ascending high enough to sight the ruins."

Eni looked at the monster, carefully scrutinizing it. In the light of day, Zathos didn't appear much different than it had the first morning Eni got a good look at it. Its skinless flesh was still composed entirely of slimy black cables of varying widths all twisted and bound together, its eyes still blazing brightly in its ugly head. By contrast, Tsar looked thinner than ever, his body gaunt beneath his ragged cloak, but at least the wolf had been eating. Nothing had passed into the monster's maw, not even at night; every morning there were no footprints or wing marks in the ground to indicate that Zathos had left to go hunting for rats that hadn't run off quite far enough.

The creature didn't seem diminished in any way by their trip, but Tsar shook his head. "Something might see you," he said quietly, "Save your strength."

"As you command, All-King," Zathos replied placidly.

The day began to wane, and as the sun began its slow slide toward the horizon behind them Eni at last caught a glimpse of dull bricks collapsed into the vague suggestion of a wall. "There it is," Eni said softly, pointing at their destination ahead of them, and Tsar nodded slowly.

As they got closer, an odd sense of doubling came over Eni, as though she was seeing two versions of the village at once. One of them was the ruins as they stood before her, as they had been when she had visited as a fresh graduate of the university. The Idrun that met her eyes and filled her own memories was a testament to how the Mother reclaimed the efforts of mammals, the remains of buildings being slowly swallowed by the ground and the plants that grew out of it.

The other was the Idrun Tsar had seen.

It was sharp and fresh in her head, everything impossibly distinct in the recollections of the wolf's superior eyes and nose. She could almost see the front gate looming before her, its cleverly made hexagonal design cheerfully boasting of the village's prowess in working wood and iron, but instead there was nothing. An empty hole in the remains of the brick wall, yawning like a mouth, was all that was there. Sinister shadows began filling what was left of the settlement as the sun sank ever lower, and the quality of the air somehow changed as the yawn became a leer.

It wasn't simply that it was growing colder and darker, although it was. There was an oppressive presence that pushed against Eni, as though she was being covered with a heavy blanket, and her fur started to stand on end as they got ever closer. 

"You feel it," Tsar said quietly, turning to her.

At last, after all his previous silent musings, the wolf was completely back in the moment, his gaze sharp but kind as he considered Eni. "It… It wasn't like this before," Eni replied, and she found that she was whispering, "Was this always here?"

Tsar nodded slowly. "You've gotten more sensitive," he said, and Eni could hear sympathy in his voice, "It's what I left behind."

"There is more," Zathos said, and for the first time the monster's voice was different.

It was as unnervingly emotionless and steady as it always was, but Zathos was speaking more quietly in what was very nearly a whisper. Eni strained her ears, clutching at her trident as Idrun loomed before them, and then there was a sound. It wasn't one she heard, but it filled her mind nonetheless, one that was familiar and all the more awful for it.

It was the chime of a small silver bell, the sort a faun might wear around her neck.

Tsar froze in place, his eyes widening even as his pupils constricted to points, and Eni knew he had sensed the same thing she had. For him it would have been a smell, she was sure, one that would have been just as vivid and unpleasant a reminder. One that wasn't really a scent any more than the jingling had been a noise, but they meant the same thing.

Magic.

There was something lurking inside Idrun, something that had either been drawn to the oppressive aura that surrounded the village or been commanded to wait there. 

"Three Begotten, All-King," Zathos said in its low and unsettling voice, "How will you proceed?"












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