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Chapter 60: Stones of the World

Updated: 4 days ago

Tsar didn't answer at once. He lifted his head and inhaled deeply, his nostrils flaring and his eyes closing. His face smoothed over, the tension departing his expression until there was nothing but a placid calm. When his eyes reopened, the wolf almost had the look of a mammal entering his favorite tavern after a long day, but his voice was as hard as Eni had ever heard it.

"Slay them."

A shiver ran down Eni's back at the coldness of his words, which all but buzzed with the anger that his face and body didn't show. Her paw shot out and grabbed Tsar's arm, and she desperately stared up into his face. "Wait!" she hissed, the word barely more than a whisper.

Eni's ears had popped up, swiveling back and forth as she strained her hearing for any sign of the horrible monsters, and when nothing seemed nearby she kept speaking in an urgent tone. "What happens next?" she asked Tsar, "Do you know how we get to Invermir from here?"

A moment passed, the wolf remaining motionless, and then he slowly shook his head. Eni could feel his heart through the grip she had on his arm, slow and steady and yet somehow straining for release. "What about you?" Eni asked, turning to face Zathos.

Its face remained as unsettlingly neutral as ever as it responded. "Still innominate, Archivist," Zathos replied.

"Easier to search with those things dead," Tsar said harshly, and in Eni's grasp he suddenly felt as taut as a viol's string.

Her paw fell away as he stood, striding for the massive gap in the ruined wall around Idrun that had once been its gate. He drew his whip-sword in a single smooth motion, cracking its tip with a sound like thunder. "Come, then!" he bellowed, the words ringing in the air, "Here, damn you!"

Eni mouthed his name in silent horror as she watched, her paw still outstretched, because the first of the Begotten appeared with the speed of lightning. In one moment, there was nothing before Tsar but crumbling foundations and weeds made nearly invisible by the fading light of day. In the next, the beast was upon him, moving so fast that it was a blur. The creature was far larger than any of the ones that Eni had seen scuttling out of Terregor; its awful body was nearly as big as a barn. Despite its size it had an uncanny grace to every moment, its nimble legs stepping with absolute surety as it barreled at the wolf. Its terrible three-part maw opened, ichor drooling out from among teeth the size of tombstones, and its screech was like a landslide.

Tsar's whip-sword burst into flame as he swung it, his head lifted defiantly, and he called out wordlessly. The sound was coarse and rough, as much a roar as it was a bark, and it echoed flatly across the ruins of Idrun. The Begotten was not deterred, lashing out with one of its razor-sharp claws, but the limb never got within six feet of Tsar.

The wolf cut its leg off with a ferocious blow, and the severed part of the Begotten's body sailed through the air like a tree trunk in a tornado. It struck the remains of the wall that surrounded the village, sending fragments of bricks flying everywhere in an explosion of dust, and the monster bellowed.

With an agility that should have been beyond anything so large the creature turned sharply, kicking up dirt as its claws dug into the ground, but Tsar was already on the move. He was running past the beast, his head tucked down and his arms pumping at his sides while his weapon trailed behind him. The segments of the blade flashed brilliantly, streaming flames that stretched before fading.

The Begotten whirled around, its powerful legs chewing up the cobblestones that had once made a cheery path through Idrun, and Tsar's whip-sword cracked ferociously. Another of the beast's limbs sloughed off, its horribly raw-looking flesh burning where it had been cut, and still it pressed gamely on.

"Your left!" Zathos cried suddenly, for the first time speaking at an elevated volume.

Its voice was otherwise as flat and affectless as ever, but Eni threw herself forward the instant the monster spoke. As she was still in the air, another Begotten landed heavily where she had been standing only a moment earlier. It wasn't nearly as large as the one Tsar was fighting, but it was still enormous, nearly three times as long as Eni was tall. Its thick legs plowed into the ground, sending up a stinging spray of dirt and clods of grass, and it hissed menacingly as its massive head whipped toward Eni.

Her reaction was automatic. As if of its own volition, her trident lifted, its tines pointed toward the beast. The Begotten's awful mouth clicked open and closed, making a terrible mixture of vocalizations that were both wet and sharp. One of its powerful forelimbs shot out, and although Eni managed to keep her grip on her weapon her arms went completely numb as the monster tried swatting it from her grasp. She skittered along the rough terrain like a child's ball, narrowly avoiding bashing her skull in on a boulder. The tough fabric of her jacket did almost nothing to soften the press of smaller rocks into her back, but at last she started slowing.

Eni slid to a stop near a collapsed pile of stone that looked to have once been a storehouse, the mortar that had once held it together almost entirely gone and its thatched roof long-since rotted away. The beast turned rapidly, screeching and chittering until it spotted her again, and Eni had no time to stand before it leaped at her. She raised her trident again even as she knew it was utterly futile; one of the monster's wicked claws would surely pass through the weapon without even slowing and then through her chest.

The idea brought with it no fear or anxiety, just a chilly calm. Eni pulled on reserves of strength she didn't know she had, her limited options flying through her mind as she considered each in turn. Time stretched, each beat of her heart seeming to last an eternity. Eni shifted her legs, preparing to push herself out of the reach of the Begotten in one last desperate attempt, and felt her toes rub against the same large stone that she had nearly collided with.

A new plan struck her, one so vivid and fully formed that she put it in motion without question. Eni took a deep breath and then kicked the boulder as hard as she could. Only as her leg was about to make contact with the unyielding stone did the insanity of what she was attempting come into focus. She should have broken her foot and the rock should have remained stubbornly in place.

That wasn't what happened.

The boulder was a chunk of red marble with copper and gold stripes, nearly the size of Eni's torso and surely weighing hundreds of pounds, but it tore itself free of the ground as effortlessly as a pebble. It sailed upward, trailing bits of dirt Eni could barely make out in the gloomy twilight, and moved so quickly that had she blinked she would have surely lost it. Her eyes remained open, however, and as they widened with wonder she saw the stone slam into the Begotten's torso with enough force to shatter.

The monster was sent dangerously off balance, its perfect aim spoiled, and instead of dropping on top of Eni it landed heavily about twenty feet short of her. Debris rained from the sky as the monster struggled to stand, its rear a pulpy mess that oozed tarry ichor out of cracks in its awful skin. Eni pushed herself to her feet, strength flowing through her, and she hefted her trident. The creature was wounded but too stubborn to give up, and although half its legs no longer seemed to work it screeched its defiance and began pulling itself toward Eni with frightening speed.

Eni crouched low, prepared to feint and stab at it, but she never got the chance. Zathos flew past her, the monster's powerful wings flapping in a manner that was somehow utterly unlike a bird or a bat, and as it approached the Begotten simply unraveled.

Eni had no other word for what happened. In one moment, Zathos looked the same as it ever did, a bizarre creature just ever so slightly too exotic and unsettling to be a mammal. In the next, the cables that made up its torso split apart, dozens of strands no thicker than pens lashing out like tentacles. Each one shot for the Begotten's hide and plunged in, a sickening series of squelching noises filling Eni's ears as Zathos latched itself to the creature's side.

The Begotten roared its displeasure, but Zathos pulled itself as close as a tick, nestled in the gap between two of the monster's legs. An instant later, there was a sound that Eni felt in her head. It was like a pump in motion, something like a smooth and steady flow of water. The Begotten screeched and flailed, slamming itself into the ground in a futile attempt to knock Zathos loose, but the smaller monster remained grimly attached. Eni could see the cables that Zathos had forced into the Begotten wriggling beneath its slimy hide, a wave of disgust coming over her.

She sprinted forward, stabbing at the Begotten's eyes, and her trident rammed home with an awful resistance. It was like pressing a spoon into a jar of strawberry jelly, firm but not unyielding, and the monster shrieked as thick fluid wept from the wound. Eni pulled her arms back, freeing the weapon in a gory spray, and stabbed it home again. She felt sick to her stomach, the Begotten's haunting screams filling her ears even as its awful limbs twitched and flailed, and she rocked the trident loose.

Eni stabbed it once more and that was enough. The monster's cries ended abruptly, as did the sound in her head, and she wrenched her weapon out of the beast's eye socket. The upper third of her trident's shaft was completely covered in awful viscera, gleaming dully in the feeble light, and her chest heaved with exertion. Her weapon felt suddenly heavy, a burden she could barely keep upright, and as she watched Zathos disentangled itself from the corpse.

The cables that made up its torso pulled free of the Begotten with grotesque sucking sounds, leaving wounds the size of coins, and Eni caught a glimpse of what was in Zathos's torso. It was hollow, crisscrossed with thorny cables, and just as Eni realized that she was seeing rasping teeth Zathos had reformed itself. The monster stood, looking into Eni's eyes, but it didn't have to crane its neck up. They were both standing on the ground next to the Begotten's remains, and Eni realized at once what had happened.

Zathos had grown larger.

The monster had been nearly a head shorter than her, but it suddenly was exactly the same height. Its proportions had not changed; it was simply bigger. "You… You ate its theurgy," Eni said, the words feeling as numb as her still-tingling paws.

"Not entirely," the monster corrected, its high and strange voice no different than when it had been smaller, "What remained vanished with its death."

"Why?" Eni demanded; she had felt the energy departing the Begotten as it died but had no idea where it had gone.

Zathos gave the answer she had expected, its tone as unchanging as it had been every other time. "Still innominate, Archivist," it replied, and Eni shook her head to clear it.

She desperately wanted to go to sleep, her eyelids drooping and her body aching, but there had been three of the Begotten. "Where's Tsar?" she asked urgently, glancing about.

Eni could see that the wolf had already defeated the first monster he had been fighting; severed limbs and enormous chunks of its body littered the village, giving off a powerfully unpleasant smell as they burned. The brightness of the flames and the oily smoke they produced made it hard to make anything else out, but then Eni heard what could only be the crack of a whip-sword.

She tried running in the direction of the sound but her legs barely felt able to support her. All she managed was an unsteady jog, Zathos easily keeping pace with her as they rounded the ruins of an inn and entered an overgrown courtyard. Tsar was there, dueling a Begotten even larger than the one he had already slain, and Eni stared at the scene in horror.

Tsar was panting with effort, dodging and feinting as he tried striking at its legs, but the monster was hideously quick. It nimbly side-stepped his every attack, and the wolf seemed only to be wearing himself out, not landing so much as a single blow upon the beast. He circled it warily as it lashed out with its enormous claws, kicking up enormous clouds of dust that made the light of his whip-sword almost impossible to see.

As Eni watched, the light winked out entirely as the monster's head lunged for Tsar. She heard its fearsome jaws snapping shut like a steel trap, and for a breathless moment she was sure that it had caught the wolf.

"Tsar!" she cried, gripping her trident tightly as she desperately searched for any sign of him.

It was far too dark to see anything, and her hearing was oddly muted, as though molasses had been poured into her ears. The air felt thick and viscous, full of terrible potential, and as the seconds passed Eni felt her mouth go horribly dry. She lifted her weapon and gave a cry of her own, charging at the hateful creature as she focused every fiber of her being on driving the tines of her trident into the monster's enormous and hideous face. The thing turned abruptly, its burning eyes locking onto hers, and its remaining legs tensed as it prepared to make a massive leap. Eni pressed herself flat to the ground, lifting her weapon to spear the thing, and braced for its charge.

Then it stumbled.

A blaze of light suddenly came from near the middle of the Begotten's body, the fiery chevrons of Tsar's whip-sword shearing the monster in half. The creature staggered again before it fell apart, oozing awful black blood. Tsar stood undaunted and unscratched, his chest heaving as his cloak rippled in the fitful wind. He glanced over his shoulder, catching Eni's eye, and she froze.

There was no kindness or mercy in his gaze. All she saw was raw hunger, unsated by his inevitable victory, and when his focus turned to her it changed to something she had never seen written across his face. His attention was mesmerizing, his pale blue eyes endless and enticing, and Eni gasped. The wolf's whip-sword lashed out again but he didn't break their eye contact, and Eni was dimly aware of the Begotten screeching as its severed front half tried crawling after him.

Tsar began walking toward her and the air was charged, something seeming to spark and crackle between them. The wolf struck out with his weapon with contemptuous ease, the blades whirling left and right, but Eni couldn't tear her eyes away from him. A terrible purpose was etched in every line of his face and illuminated in the flickering light of his whip-sword, and Eni felt her legs squirm and her tail twitch. She felt a mad desire to run, but not to try to get away.

She wanted to draw the moment of their reunion out, to make it last as long as it possibly could, and as the monster behind him at last collapsed and went still Eni could see nothing but Tsar. He wrapped his weapon back around his waist with a single smooth flick of his wrist, the flames winking out as the grip dangled neatly at his waist. "Eni," he growled, his voice low and husky; somehow he was already upon her, reaching down to pull her to her feet.

"Tsar," she replied, "I… Are…"

Her words seemed to have utterly abandoned her. She could feel her heart and his beating in perfect synchronicity, his wild but pleasant musk filling her nose. The wolf's face was less than an inch from hers, and Eni felt the strands of fur flopping in front of her eye fluttering in his breath. He was incredibly close, so close that she could feel the hard hilt of his whip-sword pressing against her hip. Eni licked at her lips; the air between them was almost too warm to breathe, waves of it sinking down to the pit of her belly.

"I sense no more Begotten," Zathos said suddenly, and Eni jerked back, stumbling a step or two before regaining her balance.

She had completely forgotten about the monster, but it was standing near her and Tsar, its implacable and unsettling eyes looking at both of them as it stood at attention. Tsar's face shifted through some emotion too quickly to make it out before he was nearly as neutral as the monster, looking at it carefully. "They're… They're all dead?" Eni asked, her words shaky.

It must have just been her exhaustion from fighting one Begotten, her thoughts sluggish and her heart racing much too quickly. "Yes, Archivist," Zathos replied.

"Three," Tsar said, his tone slow and thoughtful, "Why three?"

"Still innominate, All-King," Zathos replied.

"There… there are a lot of possibilities I can think of," Eni said.

Speaking gave her something to focus on, her mind clearing as she continued. "Maybe only three could be spared to keep watch. Maybe more are coming. Or maybe…"

Eni swallowed hard before continuing. "Maybe they've already done what they were supposed to."

Zathos rubbed one of its fearsome yet delicate paws against the top of its head. Its ears pressed briefly back before becoming upright again, and Eni was puzzled for a moment as to why it had bothered before she realized the monster was mimicking her. "All reasonable hypotheses," Zathos said, "It is possible that someone or something may meet us here or that more Begotten may arrive."

"Go look," Tsar said abruptly.

The wolf's tail swung from side to side as he turned to the monster. "Scout," he said, pointing up, "See if anything's coming."

"As you command," Zathos replied.

The monster spread its enormous wings wide, and with a single flap propelled itself into the air. The wind it made blew Eni's ears back, Zathos smoothly ascending into the sky until it was visible only as a small void where there should have been stars. Tsar watched it circle away for a moment, and then turned back to Eni. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, "Shouldn't have left you alone with that thing. Shouldn't have left."

He grimaced, seeming almost embarrassed, but he didn't shy away when Eni took his paw in hers. "Zathos and I were fine," she said, "If you had needed to fight all three at once…"

She trailed off, not wanting to consider the possibility. "Don't trust it," Tsar said bluntly, "Don't trust tools that think for themselves."

"I'll be careful," Eni promised, and she gave his paw a squeeze before letting go.

"Didn't want it here for this," Tsar said, "Always listening. I…"

The wolf struggled for the right words, and Eni waited patiently until he at last managed to say, "I need you. Need a historian."

Eni blinked, unsure of what he was getting at, but Tsar managed to continue. "Since we left Terregor… Been remembering. Bits and pieces. Like…"

His tail lashed fiercely from side to side as he paused. "Like you tore a few pages out of a book and shuffled them," he said at last, his brow furrowing, "Don't make sense."

"You need help figuring out the order?" Eni asked, and Tsar nodded, his face smoothing out with obvious relief that she understood.

"I've done it before," Eni said, trying to sound cheerful, "I'll get some paper and—"

"No," Tsar interrupted, "Too much I can't describe. Take too long."

"Oh," Eni said quietly, all thoughts of meticulously noting down Tsar's memories in her journal and then teasing out the right order abandoning her at once, "I understand."

"Only… Only if you want to," he said, the words so quiet that Eni could barely hear them, and she laced her fingers in his and gently pulled until they were both sitting.

"I do," she said, just as softly, and leaned forward to press her forehead against his. His presence was warm and soft, and as Eni reached out with her power—

She was lost in an inchoate sea of thought.

Eni felt powerful and cold currents tearing at her, an overpowering tide threatening to plunge her under the surface of something that wasn't truly a liquid. It was Tsar's mind, enormous and powerful, shimmering with colors she perceived with all her senses. It was too much to take in, too much to bear, the waves far stronger than the real ocean.

The ocean.

She grabbed at the idea and pulled as hard as she could, grappling grimly as she felt the tide crashing against and through her. Tsar's mind surged against her but she held her ground even as she bobbed and drifted, until suddenly there was something under her once more.

Eni found herself sitting cross-legged at a table far too low to be fashionable in the Circle. Her seat was a simple cushion, directly on the floor, and as Eni looked around she was delighted to realize she knew exactly where she was. Tsar was at her side, sitting in the same fashion she was with his tail neatly coiled, and he glanced around with obvious interest. 

"Where is this?" he asked, his ears cocking this way and that.

"Siverets," Eni said simply, not saying anything more as she soaked in the details of the library where she had first read stories of the Slayer.

In reality, it was a small building, little more than an annex to the town hall where the village elders met, but still finely crafted. Large pillars, painted a cheerful sea-green, ran through the low rows of shelves, soaring to a high ceiling with meticulously carved rafters. Not a single nail had been used in building the library, every joint made to fit together so precisely that they were unnecessary, and gauzy shades covered the glassless windows that admitted light and gave a spectacular view of the beach when they were open.

The space Eni found herself in resembled what she remembered, but just as her apartment had been stretched to infinite height so too had the library become impossibly vast. Eni was sitting at what had always been her favorite table, close to a window, but the rest of the room continued for as far as she could see. The far wall, which should have been less than twenty feet away, was invisible, much too distant to make out. Instead of the twelve pillars that there should have been, there seemed to be an endless number of them, arranged in a vast and perfect grid.

Tsar nodded slowly, his eyes bright. Eni remembered him saying he had never been to the Nihuron Peninsula, and she wished she could have taken him outside to see where she had grown up. They had a purpose, though, and Eni repressed a sigh as she stood up. "This should be the same as my mind, shouldn't it?" she asked, "All the books are memories."

"Yes," the wolf replied, "I'm… going along with the metaphor."

A small smile touched Eni's lips at the hesitant way he spoke, and Tsar pushed himself to his feet. "I don't remember where I was before Idrun," he said slowly, "There was… a door. A… a confrontation. Both. I don't…"

A frown crossed his face and he shook his head. "That's alright," Eni said, "Before you disappeared…"

She cast her memory back, tracing out the last confirmed stops of the Slayer before he had disappeared from the pages of history. "There was a feast thrown in your honor in Vornstrom less than a week before you vanished," she said, "The first and only time you were ever recorded visiting the city, in fact."

As she spoke, they had been walking, and as they passed a bookshelf one tome in particular seemed somehow to call to her. She pulled it free, opening its cover, and suddenly they were no longer in the Siverets library.

Eni had been to Vornstrom many times, but she had only had the privilege of visiting Wondobar once. The citadel, which had once been the palace from which Wordermund ruled his empire, could not be mistaken for any other building in all the Cradle and it was in the great hall that led to the former throne room that Eni found herself.

She gaped about with interest, but the space was exactly as she remembered it, a vast expanse of smoothly polished marble under a vaulted ceiling supported by elegantly twisting buttresses. Enormous chandeliers of polished crystal, glowing with the light of hundreds of lamps, banished any shadows, every nook and cranny perfectly illuminated.

Ahead of her and Tsar, two vast doors made of the same material as the ones to Wordermund's mausoleum glittered dully, the sigil of his empire elaborately carved into them. At either side of the doorway were a dozen guards, and Eni almost looked past them as she searched for anything that was different before her eyes suddenly went back to them.

The soldiers weren't real.

They looked like woodcut illustrations in a book, sharply outlined and detailed and yet far short of looking anything like a living mammal. Their colors were muted, the strokes of a paintbrush nearly visible, and they were perfectly motionless. Eni glanced at Tsar, utterly baffled by what she was seeing, and as she did so another Tsar stepped into view.

The wolf's copy could have never been mistaken for the original; he was just as unreal-looking as the guards, his features far more angular and bestial than Tsar's, and his tail was longer and thicker and covered in iridescent scales the size of copper pieces. His feet ended in powerful talons, and as the duplicate walked toward the door Eni realized at last what she was seeing.

It wasn't Tsar's memory. Or at least, not quite. She was somehow merging what she had seen in a book with her own memories and what he could recall; the Slayer striding for the door was nothing more than a depiction Eni had once seen before. He was too tall, too predatory, somehow lacking in all the finer qualities Eni had come to appreciate in Tsar, but as the false copy approached the door something changed.

The chandeliers overhead changed style entirely, growing smaller and dimmer, and the guards at the doorway became real. They shifted and flowed, half of their number vanishing while others changed species. Only their uniforms remained the same, but the lack of fine detail resolved itself, every link of the chainmail beneath their padded armor snapping into focus, and their expressions resolved themselves from pure reverence to awe mixed with confusion.

Tsar's memory of himself had become real as well, striding forward while a finely made cloak billowed behind him. The fabric was as black as night, completely lacking the shabby hem and obvious repairs Eni was familiar with, and his clothes under it were well-cared for. The armor on his legs and wrists caught the light magnificently, etched with exquisite abstract detail, and he looked somehow more vital than the wolf Eni knew.

The memory seemed almost broader and taller, his build significantly more muscular to the point he could barely be called lean. His mane was tidily combed back rather than wild, and Eni saw impatience written across his face as he approached the guards.

"Master Slayer, sir," a tall deer who was nonetheless dwarfed by Tsar said to the memory, "I— I apologize, sir, but no weapons are permitted in the Curia."

The deer was too professional to flinch at the look he received in turn, but the Slayer didn't pause. He carelessly unwound his whip-sword from his waist and tossed it to the buck.

It was, beyond any doubt, Nidhogg, not the crude copy Rongen had made as a replacement. The segments of its blade were elegantly sinuous, smoothly curved rather than blocky chevrons, and made of a dark metal that gleamed like soap bubbles in the light of the chandeliers. The deer was apparently unwilling to touch it with his fingers or let the weapon fall to the floor, using his shield to catch it and hold it away from his body. The Slayer hadn't stopped, continuing for the door, and the remaining guards hastily threw the doors open. Eni grabbed the real Tsar's arm and pulled him along, hurrying after his younger self.

The Curia was magnificent, displaying every sign of its former grandeur as the seat of Wordermund's power. Enormous windows rose up behind the massive circular table that dominated the space, and positioned high above all the other chairs was the Solemn Throne. Only the Emperor himself had ever sat there, and even millennia after his death it was as imposing as ever, resting atop an extravagant pillar of black marble and gold too high for any mammal to scale. The walls were festooned with gigantic embroideries showing the sigils of each of the seven cities that made up the Circle, the one for Vornstrom larger than all the others.

Most of the seats were empty; the full council was clearly not assembled, but Eni recognized Consul Asadin immediately to the right of the Solemn Throne. The lion was somewhat older than in his official portrait, his mane streaked much more liberally with gray and his brows far shaggier, but there was no mistaking his sharp yellow eyes or the symbol of office around his neck. He would, Eni knew, die less than a month after the Slayer's disappearance, but she saw no sign of weakness in Asadin's fearless face.

"Master Slayer," he said, his voice as warm and rich as all the history books had recorded, "Welcome to Vornstrom. You honor us with your presence."

He lowered his head and all the other mammals present did the same, whether they were other members of the council or guards. The deer who had caught Nidhogg had followed the Slayer into the room, another guard helping him hold the shield steady and as far away from their bodies as possible. Asadin raised his head, a kindly look in his eyes as he considered the Slayer. "May I ask what brings our savior to the Lion’s Rock?" the consul asked.

"There's trouble coming," the wolf answered bluntly, and although his voice sounded the same as Tsar's it was somehow still different.

There was no hesitation or uncertainty in his words, but more than that his voice was colored with emotion. There was a barely restrained impatience Eni could hear, and even as Asadin frowned and the other council members murmured to themselves the Slayer continued. "There are monsters in the Circle," he said, and an armadillo that Eni didn't recognize immediately interjected.

"Has there been an attack, then?" he asked.

"No," the Slayer replied, "But—"

"Forgive us for our skepticism, sir wolf, but there's never been a monster loose in the Circle," a cow in an elegant gown interrupted, "The Aureole Mountains and our gates have kept us safe."

"And our valiant soldiers watching our borders, of course," the armadillo added, "To say nothing of the Slayer's fine work beyond our lands."

"They haven't attacked yet," the Slayer said, and Eni could hear a cold undercurrent of anger in his words, "They will."

"That is an alarming allegation, Master Slayer," Asadin said slowly, "You have my word we shall give it the due consideration and concern it deserves. However, are there any… Any details you can provide to support your claim?"

"Yes, Master Slayer," a coyote with a reedy voice added, "If there have been no attacks, what have there been?"

"I feel it," the Slayer said sharply, and a sheep at the table sniggered.

"You feel it?" a llama asked, "You have been on the road too long, sir wolf, and are seeing monsters where there are none. The Mother has blessed the Circle with her protection; it is promised that we shall have her grace."

The Slayer addressing the council didn't react to the statement with anything but a grimace of frustration, but at Eni's side Tsar flinched. She knew he had heard the same thing she had, and as the llama raised his arms she saw a horribly familiar expression on the mammal's face. It was the same beatific look that she had seen in the catacombs under Terregor, and Eni swallowed hard.

"Yes," Tsar murmured slowly, "Yes, I remember. They…"

"They didn't believe you," Eni said softly, and he nodded.

"I tend to agree with my distinguished colleague," a kudu said smoothly, "Perhaps the Slayer is in need of some rest and relaxation after the long journey that has brought him to us? It would be our great honor to have you tour the city and to celebrate you with a feast. Perhaps a few nights in a warm bed while your claims are—"

"Enough!" the Slayer roared, most of the council members flinching at his voice, "Your destruction is upon you, and you think I care about feasts? Have you forgotten who I am?"

He raised his right paw in a sharp gesture, and Nidhogg flew from where it rested on the shield and into his palm. The council members gaped at him in fearful awe, and Tsar cracked the whip-sword hard. It burned with a light almost too brilliant to look at, blazing with flames the same blue as his eyes, and the tip of the weapon whistled as it struck the floor and gouged out a chunk nearly a foot long and three inches deep.

"Master Slayer," Asadin began, but as he spoke his voice began fading out, "I assure—"

Eni and Tsar were suddenly back at the library in Siverets, still standing by the shelves. Eni staggered unsteadily for a moment, her stomach lurching at the abrupt transition, and she almost dropped the book she had held. "They had pretty words," Tsar said, "Pledged to investigate, but they stunk of lies. Too afraid or confident to believe me, all of them."

He sighed, shaking his head. "I went to their feast. I remember that now," he continued slowly, "But… Nothing happened. They ate and drank and I… left."

"You don't remember why you went to Idrun?" Eni said, and Tsar shook his head.

"I… It's almost there," he said, "I can… almost grasp it."

Eni didn't reply, staying silent as she considered what she had seen. Tsar stayed at her side as they aimlessly wandered the library, passing between shelves stuffed full of books and scrolls. "Something must have happened," Eni said slowly, "Something that put the idea in your head."

Tsar nodded, and she pressed on. "If it wasn't the feast…" she continued, "Was it the tour?"

"Tour?" he repeated diffidently.

"The one the kudu mentioned," Eni said, "You did take it; I've read about it. Asadin’s journal describes how he guided the Slayer to all of Vornstrom's wonders, from the old armories to Var Thurion."

Tsar suddenly stopped walking. "The stele," he whispered, "There was… There was something about it."

He began walking again, hurrying toward a shelf, and another book seemed to call for Eni. She picked it up and—

They were standing outside of Wondobar, sequestered in the vast courtyard just past the Faceless Kings that guarded the citadel's main entrance. Eni could just see the stone colossi, looming high above the ground, but quickly turned away to take in the tour that Consul Asadin was giving. Eni recognized some of the other members of the council from the earlier meeting or from history books, but the entourage had grown large enough to almost fill the space; there had to be hundreds of mammals and nearly as many guards.

By comparison, what the lion was showing to the Slayer seemed almost insignificant by comparison. It was a simple stele of carved red marble, shot through with threads of copper and gold, standing nearly sixty feet tall. "Legends say that Wordermund himself carved the stele," Asadin was saying, a faint smile touching his lips, "But whether he did or not, we do know that it was carved during his reign. At the very least, he chose the inscription."

The lion gestured at the symbols engraved into the base of the stele, rendered somewhat faint with their great age and yet still perfectly readable. "'In her victory, we endure,'" Asadin said, using the most common translation as he traced his fingers across the ancient words, "Reflecting the Emperor's faith in the Mother, of course."

Eni thought she saw a glimmer of recognition pass across the face of the Slayer, but he made no comment, simply nodding his head and following Asadin and his entourage as the tour continued. At her side, Tsar was frowning, his gaze intent upon the stele. "I saw something," he said softly, "I don't remember what it was, but there was something."

Eni was sure it hadn't been the inscription; as the Slayer, Tsar had been completely illiterate and the etchings would have meant nothing to him. The design of the stele itself wasn't particularly remarkable, either. It was neither the largest nor the smallest of the steles dating from the time of Wordermund's reign, and its narrow pyramidal shape was quite common. The connection to the emperor certainly made it special, but Eni sensed nothing magical about it; it was simply an enormous block of carved stone. There was, however, something oddly familiar about it, and as Eni stared at the stele one last possibility occurred to her.

"The marble," she whispered, turning to Tsar, and excitement suddenly filled her, "It's the marble."

Tsar cocked his head to the side, clearly not understanding, and then suddenly his eyes widened. "You're right," he said, "That's what I saw."

"There's the exact same kind of stone in Idrun!" Eni said triumphantly, remembering the boulder she had kicked into the Begotten.

Tsar nodded slowly, and the chancel in Vornstrom vanished, depositing them back in the Siverets library. "When I… That was my second time in Idrun," Tsar said, "I had passed through it before. I saw that marble. And when I saw the stele…"

"You knew where the stone had come from," Eni said, "You knew there had to be a connection."

"I went to Idrun to look," Tsar said, "But…"

"The Archons must have known you were figuring it out," Eni replied softly.

"There's a quarry," Tsar said, "Just outside the village. I remember one of their elders telling me."

"That's the last piece, then," Eni said, "That's where we have to go."

Tsar considered her words for a moment, and then he suddenly blurted, "It's a tunnel."

"A tunnel?" Eni repeated, and Tsar grabbed her paw.

"That's why I could feel monsters in the Circle, but they never attacked. They lurked. Waiting," the wolf said urgently, and Eni was sure he was right.

"Then we know where the tunnel leads," she said.

"Invermir," Tsar said grimly, and there was a brief pause as the word sank in.

"Time to go," he added, and Eni spared one final glance at the representation of the Siverets library before she pulled back on her power, feeling a slight resistance before—

They were back inside Idrun, sitting on the grass between the ruins of buildings and the dead husks of the Begotten. Eni pulled her head away from Tsar's, their eyes meeting as she did. "Thank you," he said softly, and he offered Eni his arm to help pull her upright.

She gratefully took his help, unsteadily getting to her feet, and waited with him in companionable silence. Tsar's face was a thoughtful mask of concentration, his memories clearly absorbing him, and before long Zathos smoothly descended and landed in front of them.

The monster's approach was almost completely silent, and Eni found herself feeling a twinge of regret that it was back; she thought that Tsar might have said something more if there had been perhaps five or ten more minutes of them alone. "There are no additional Begotten within thirty miles of our position," Zathos reported blandly.

"Did you see a quarry?" Eni asked, "Somewhere outside of Idrun, I mean."

Zathos blinked at her slowly. "Yes, Archivist, there is a quarry approximately one and one third mile away in that direction," it said, gesturing with one of its limbs.

"That's where we're going," Tsar said roughly, and the monster didn't question him.

The wind blew fitfully, whistling mournfully as it passed through the ruins, and although it was chilly it had nothing to do with the shiver that went down Eni's spine. She wrapped her arms around herself as they set off, their footsteps the only sound they made.

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