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Chapter 61: The Daimon of Idrun

Updated: May 23

As they passed beyond the crumbling remains of Idrun's wall, the terrain quickly became hilly and treacherously rocky, but the oppressive feeling did not lift. Eni had thought the atmosphere felt thick before, but as she did her best to follow Zathos's eerily nimble steps she could barely breathe the air. Her lungs felt as though they had been filled with cold tar, a horrible sinking sense in her stomach as whispers muttered in her ears.

The voices were vague and indistinct, too faint to make out, but Eni didn't need the words. She could hear the delicate tinkling of a small silver bell, echoing and reverberating until it threatened to overpower her thoughts. At her side, Tsar's attention was firmly fixed on Zathos's back, his tail pushing out here and there for counterbalance as he picked his way across what might have once been a path before some long-ago rockslide. "Tsar?" Eni asked.

Her voice was quiet; she didn't dare raise it, not when the night was so dark and burdened with such a horribly oppressive weight. The wolf gave no sign he had heard her, his gaze fixed straight ahead. "I…" Eni began slowly, "You're not alone."

The words felt terribly inadequate, but although Tsar didn't as much as grunt in acknowledgement she somehow got the sense he had understood. His heart seemed to slow ever so slightly, but Eni's ears were still full of it, faster than its normal leisurely pace. She didn't say anything else until the quarry came into view, the entrance an enormous yawning maw that was scarcely visible in the gloom.

Weeds and careless piles of stone smoothed out the once sharp borders of the tunnel carved into the hillside, one so low that the tips of Tsar's ears would brush against the ceiling if he kept them upright. Eni repressed a shudder; the awful aura that permeated Idrun like a fog seemed to radiate even more strongly off the quarry's entrance.

Zathos stopped a foot short of the opening, turning around and looking at Eni and Tsar expectantly. The monster's red eyes glowed faintly, and by their illumination Eni saw something out of place. Eni wished desperately for a lantern or even a candle, but although she had repeatedly searched her satchel over the past few days as if by looking she could make either appear the only sources of fire they had were her half-empty matchbox and Tsar's whip-sword.

She fumbled in her pocket, pulling out a match and striking it alight against the nearest rock, and squinted as she held it close to what she had seen by the light of Zathos's eyes. The stone around the quarry's entrance was smooth and weathered, but in one spot about as long as Eni's arm it was somewhat rougher. "There was something carved here," Eni said in hushed voice, "See?"

Whatever words had been engraved in the stone, they had been long-since removed, but at the top and bottom Eni could see incomplete ascenders and descenders that might have been part of a message in Classical Word. "You are correct, Archivist," Zathos replied, cocking its head to the side, "The text has been too completely obliterated to read."

"In her victory, we endure," Tsar said suddenly, his voice low and rough.

The match in Eni's fingers burned out, plunging them into darkness once more, but even as she blinked spots of color out of her eyes she could still make out Tsar. He was nothing more than a shadowy wraith, his fur and cloak rippling in the chilly breeze, but his pale eyes gleamed brightly. "I remember now," he continued, "Village elder showed me. Read it."

The wolf reached out hesitantly, brushing his fingers against the rough marks where a chisel had eliminated the same words engraved on Wordermund's stele in Vornstrom. He stood for a moment, utterly still, and at last took his paw away. "Started here," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

Although his fingers were no longer touching the stone, his arm was still outstretched, and Eni grabbed his paw and gave it a squeeze. "Come on," she said, the words far steadier than she felt, and she gestured toward the quarry.

Zathos watched patiently, but Tsar didn't move, his fingers tightening around Eni's. "What if…" the wolf began, and although he didn't finish Eni didn't need to hear any more.

There was something in his voice that had no place there, something that no one would have expected from the Slayer. Even though Tsar remained standing, his eyes holding Eni's and the parts of his face visible as even as inscrutable as ever, Eni knew exactly what he was feeling.


It was written in the quickness of his heart and the sweatiness of his paw pads, but more than anything else she heard the absolute truth of his words. For a moment, the ground under her seemed to tilt and shift and Eni felt what it was running through his mind. She could see him, enormous and savagely mindless, tearing her apart as her pleas fell on ears that were utterly deaf to any language but violence.

"It won't," she said softly, taking in a great and unsteady breath, and Tsar nodded slowly.

He let go of her paw and drew his whip-sword, igniting it and holding it out to light their way as they walked into the quarry. The flames of the weapon seemed almost to be eaten by the void, not reaching nearly as far as they should have, and the darkness felt horribly solid. Eni had no other word to describe it; it was as though it wasn't simply the absence of light but something far more sinister, something that receded at the fire only with great reluctance and eagerly took its place up again the instant it could. Although they couldn't have gone more than ten feet into the tunnel, when Eni looked back over her shoulder the night sky was no longer visible; all she saw was endless murkiness.

Eni swallowed hard and looked forward again, trying to match the lightness with which both Tsar and Zathos walked. Their footsteps were almost completely silent, but Eni's sounded horribly loud to her ears, crunching in the grit and debris of countless years. The floor was parched and dry, utterly lifeless, and the light of Tsar's whip-sword felt cold and feeble as it reflected off the narrow walls. The tool marks where the quarry had been carved danced and changed in the flickering glow, sometimes almost seeming to form words or faces, and Eni could feel a constant murmur in the back of her mind.

At her side, Tsar's breath was coming raggedly, his heart racing, but he did not falter. As they continued in grim silence, the ground began sloping downwards and the passage widened until at last the whip-sword's fire couldn't reach either wall. Eni's ears rose as she strained them, desperately listening as hard as she could, but there wasn't even the drip of water or the scuttle of insects to serve as a distraction.

Eni wasn't sure how much longer they walked before at last something came into view. At first glance it was nothing more than a rock, but when two empty sockets suddenly stared back at her Eni realized it was a skull. It looked to have belonged to a coyote or a jackal, the bone yellowed with age and completely fleshless. Teeth glittered, the lower jaw fallen away to form an impossibly wide scream, and scraps of a dark robe still clung to the remains. "What happened to him?" Eni asked in horror, and although her voice was hushed it reverberated horribly, making her wince as it bounced off the walls and repeated around them.

"Happened to him," her voice called back mockingly, "Happened to him."

Tsar was looking at the body, but his eyes were not calm; they had narrowed down to grim slits. His tail lashed back and forth as he considered the question, and Zathos considered the remains with its usual impassive thoughtfulness. The skull was terribly wrong in a way that Eni had never seen before. It wasn't crushed or broken, as she might have expected it to be. There weren't any holes punched through it by cruel fangs or merciless weapons; there was absolutely nothing missing.

There was more.

Thin filaments of bone grew out from one cheek, looking needle sharp as they protruded both outward and inward. Eni knew many Aberrants had horns or antlers where they should have had none, but every mammal she had ever met nevertheless had a symmetry to them that the skull lacked. It was horribly lopsided, some of the overgrown pieces jutting out three or four inches, and a few even pierced into the eye socket. It was as though the dead canid's bones had suddenly and uncontrollably started growing, and Eni didn't want to imagine the agony of spurs piercing its eye on relentless paths toward its brain.

She was absolutely sure they were seeing how the mammal had died, and when Tsar spoke his voice was rough and unsteady. "Do you… Do you think I did?"

The words were tentative and hesitant, but their echo was not. "I did," the words came again, sounding almost boastful, "I did."

Zathos reached down and separated the skull from the corpse's body; it came free without any resistance. The monster turned it carefully back and forth with two of its arms before setting it back down with surprising gentleness. "It bears the signs of magic," Zathos said, and its eerie voice did not echo.

Eni was about to urge them to continue before something else caught her eye; there was a gleaming black object clenched in the corpse's desiccated right paw, nearly buried by decades of dust. She carefully pulled it free, the bones of its fingers simply falling aside, and Eni found herself holding a dagger carved from obsidian.

The weapon was beautiful in a ruthless and dangerous way; its double-edged blade was honed to a razor edge that didn't look to have dulled at all, and the hilt was so finely worked that it barely seemed possible for it to be made of stone. Fine spiraling grooves had been carved into the surface for grip, but it was otherwise as smooth as glass, heavy and yet perfectly weighted. The design was unfamiliar to Eni; although she could think of more than a dozen different artisans throughout history whose workshops had produced obsidian pieces that were the dagger's equal, it didn't have any of their hallmarks. The blade could have been a hundred years old or a hundred thousand years old, its construction showing no obvious signs of age.

She held it aloft for Tsar's inspection, gesturing at it wordlessly, and his eyes widened as his pupils constricted to pinpricks once more. The wolf staggered back a step, his whip-sword flailing and sending rays of light in every direction, and he clutched at his head with his free paw. "Can smell it. My blood," he whispered, the words ringing far too loudly, and by the glow of his weapon Eni saw there was a dried brown stain at the very tip of the dagger.

He shook his head ferociously as Eni quickly pulled out a handkerchief and wrapped the obsidian blade, hiding it in a pocket of her jacket. "Are you alright?" she asked, reaching out for him, "Did you remember something?"

The wolf's eyes met hers for a moment before flickering toward where Zathos stood watching and then back to Eni. "Fine. Been here before," Tsar said simply, and although Eni could tell that there was far more on his mind she didn't push the point.

"Here before," his voice called back from the darkness all around them, and Eni's blood felt like ice in her veins.

The way the echoes shifted and twisted was impossible, not even if the chamber they were in was unspeakably vast, and she turned desperately, looking for the nearest wall. All she could see beyond the narrow slivers of light Tsar's whip-sword produced was endless and unyielding blackness. Only their footprints in the gritty layer coating the floor gave any clue as to the direction they had come from, but somehow the idea was far from reassuring.

The wolf's face was set in a scowl that was almost a grimace as they kept walking past the sad remains of an Archon and further into the gloom. Eni's heart was pounding in her chest so loudly that she could barely hear Tsar's, and her mouth was utterly dry as the minutes stretched out. It felt as though they were nowhere at all, trying to make their way across a featureless plain of dusty grays, and the air grew colder around them as they advanced.

There was no sign of where the dead canid had come from, the decades having obliterated his trail, but Eni felt horribly sure that they were going the right way. The whispers in her head were still indistinct, the words impossible to make out, but they were growing ever so slightly louder. Her breath started to become visible, hanging in the still air, and while she could see Tsar's sparkling dully in the light of his whip-sword Zathos's chest didn't move at all. She felt an unsettling sense of revulsion at how utterly alien the monster was, how corpse-like it seemed even as it moved, and tried to push the thought aside.

Her ears were still turning this way and that, straining for sounds that weren't there, but all she heard was something dangerously familiar and unwelcome. Tsar's whip-sword sputtered, its flames fading, and the wolf pulled a fuel cartridge from the pouch at the base of his tail so quickly that it almost seemed to simply appear in his paw. He clicked the weapon off, plunging them into the most absolute darkness Eni had ever experienced, and she held her breath as she listened carefully.

Eni could feel her nose twitching but was helpless to stop it, her fingers wrapped tightly around her trident as she repressed a shiver. The air had gotten painfully cold; her fur stood on end and the air she held in her lungs hurt. Her eyes darted about, sure there would be something, but she might as well have had them closed. All she heard were the small metallic noises of Tsar readying his weapon once more, but in her mind the murmurs didn't stop no matter how she tried to blot them out.

At last came the sound of the striker built into the hilt of Tsar's whip-sword, as welcome as an old friend, and Eni's eyes were dazzled by the flare of light. Tsar looked around carefully, his own ears twitching from side to side as his nostrils flared, and he gestured forward. "Something there," he mouthed silently, gesturing ahead, and Eni nodded.

Zathos repeated the gesture, its red eyes seeming rather dim and feeble as it followed Tsar as he crept forward. Eni reached out tentatively with her magic, groping for any sign of what it was they were about to face, but nothing replied. By the illumination of Tsar's whip-sword, Eni thought that a wall was coming into view, the stone rough and irregular, but when they got closer she froze in place.

It was a Begotten.

In the gloom all she could make out was the monster's hideous face, but it was so large that the entire beast had to be the size of a cathedral. Its unnatural eyes glittered dully, its terrible mouthparts spread wide to expose a maw that could swallow a carriage whole, and Eni could see it breathing in the flickering light. "Stand back!" Tsar roared, holding one arm out, but although Eni stopped Zathos didn't.

The monster hadn't stopped walking, and it didn't react as Tsar lashed out with his whip-sword. Tsar jerked the blade hard at the last possible second and narrowly avoided slicing Zathos in two before the tip struck at the thing's eyes. A shower of sparks rained down with an awful sound, but the beast was utterly unharmed, watching them carefully as it remained motionless.

Tsar glanced desperately at Eni, his teeth gritted, and she could just make out Zathos staring at them with its head cocked to the side. The monster was utterly fearless, but as she looked back at the Begotten she realized why.

"It's not real," she said, and Tsar's face contorted in confusion before smoothing back over.

He allowed the arm holding his weapon to drop, carefully walking up toward the dark shape, and Eni crept along behind him. "It's… It's a hollow-mask illusion," she said, the words nearly falling out of her mouth as an immense sense of relief overcame her, "It's not magic, it's just a… a void. Like the inside of a mask, you see?"

Eni gestured at the wall; there really was no monster. "But in the light… It looked like it was going out instead of in. An optical illusion, that's all," she continued, relaxing her grasp on her trident with great difficulty.

The carving was perfectly detailed, as though a Begotten had been pressed into wet mud that had been allowed to dry before the beast pulled away. Every inch of its ugly face was perfectly replicated in impossibly life-like detail, but Tsar shook his head. "Was one of those things," he said, "Like the one under the Terraces."

He touched the wall thoughtfully, rubbing his fingers together and coming away with a fine layer of dust. "This one came away," he said, and Eni's relief evaporated instantly.

"Can you tell how long ago?" she asked anxiously, glancing about, "Is it still here?"

"Smelled it," Tsar said in a low voice, "Gone, though. Hasn't been here since…"

He trailed off, his eyes briefly losing focus before they snapped back onto Eni's. "Since I was here last," he finished, his voice low and grave.

It wasn't much of a relief; whoever had called the creature forth had clearly managed something much more difficult than the incomplete Zezernak in the catacombs. There was no sign whatsoever that the much larger monster had still been partially fused with the rock from which it had been born; it had separated as cleanly as a plaster statue from its mold.

Eni didn't want to think about who could have managed such a task, but her musings were interrupted when Tsar spoke. "You ignored me, monster," he told Zathos, his voice harsh as he stared coldly at it, "Could have killed you."

"My apologies, All-King," Zathos said smoothly, its voice as unsettlingly even as ever, "I was not aware you had perceived this as a Begotten."

Two of Zathos's eyes ran up and down the wall, the others still focused on Tsar. "What did it look like to you, then?" Eni blurted, but the monster's response was as calm as ever.

"A wall with a depression in it, bearing faint traces of magic," Zathos said, and not for the first time Eni desperately wished she knew how honest the creature was.

She couldn't see a reason why Zathos would lie; perhaps with four eyes it couldn't even see optical illusions the way a mammal could. But then again, Tsar clearly didn't trust it, the wolf frowning at the monster a second longer before he turned abruptly back toward the rocky face, holding his nose close to it and sniffing. "I still do not detect any additional Begotten," Zathos added.

"That's good," Eni replied, a trifle uneasily.

"Perhaps," Zathos said, "Or perhaps not. I may be able to speak with them."

At that, Tsar stopped his careful examination and looked back at the monster. Eni stared at Zathos, who bore their scrutiny with an unperturbed expression. "You can understand them?" Eni asked.

"Still innominate, Archivist," Zathos said, "I consumed a significant amount of their theurgy."

The monster touched its chest with one of its arms. "It is a part of me now," Zathos said, and Eni felt her skin crawl under her fur.

"Better if we don't meet another," Tsar said, and although his voice was steady Eni was sure his apparent calm was only surface deep.

Eni swallowed hard, looking back and forth. "Which way, then?" she asked, half-expecting no answer, but Tsar pointed with one arm.

They set off again, and as they walked Eni turned to Zathos. "You should have told us about the Begotten earlier," she said.

"It was not relevant earlier," the monster replied, blinking at her, and Eni gave up any further attempt at conversing with it.

She wasn't sure, but she thought they were going the same direction the quarry's entrance had been facing, heading roughly southeast. The time dragged past with nothing to look at, and Eni found her thoughts drawn to the unfamiliar weight in her jacket pocket. Being mindful to keep it out of the dim light that Tsar's whip-sword produced she pulled it out, running a finger along the hilt thoughtfully as she did her best to treat it like an archaeological puzzle.

Eni wasn't expecting it to work as much of a distraction, but to her surprise she quickly found herself lost in making out every detail of it she could with her fingers. The grooves carved into the hilt were exceptionally precise and fine, with absolutely no rough edges to them. She thought it was possible that a diamond file had been used to make the cuts, but from the glimpse she had seen there was none of the milkiness she would have expected inside the fine channels. It was almost as though the weapon had been cast, rather than carved, but that was utterly impossible.

Is it?

Eni's own voice penetrated the murky mutterings that still whispered at the back of her mind, cutting through with terrible clarity. She hastily jammed the dagger back into her jacket's pocket, not bothering to try wrapping it once more in a handkerchief, but when she tried to let go and pull her paw free she couldn't. The blade felt fused to her fingers, which were locked around it in a death grip, and she gave a cry of alarm as her arm suddenly jerked free.

She tried desperately to keep her limb from moving but couldn't, her elbow bending as she reversed the dagger and moved it toward her chest with agonizing slowness. "Tsar!" she yelled.

Eni grabbed at the obsidian blade with her other paw, pulling with all her might, but it was like trying to topple a mountain. The tip was pressing implacably toward her, and she fell to the ground as she did everything she could to get it away. Her muscles burned like they were being torn apart, the blade's course still immovable, and then Tsar was there.

He straddled her torso, his eyes widening as he wrapped his paws around Eni's and tried yanking the blade away. His fingers squeezed hers painfully tight, but the blade barely slowed, its tip easily poking through Eni's shirt. She could feel the dagger brushing against the chest wrap she wore underneath it, the fabric offering no resistance as the blade forced itself toward Eni's heart.

The muscles in Tsar's neck bulged as he pulled with all his might, his muzzle parted in a grimace of effort, but he couldn't stop the weapon. Eni felt icy obsidian pressing through her fur and against her skin. She gasped; it was like being branded by cold fire, leaching all the warmth from her. Her heart pounded wildly as she let out a breath, trying to pull herself away from the implacable weapon, but she knew she was only delaying the inevitable.

She groped wildly for her power, trying to focus, but the pain was vast and immense, warm blood flowing out and away from the frigid dagger. She felt it scraping across her ribs with exquisite slowness, aiming for the gap between them, and stars filled her vision as she screamed. Tsar was saying something but she couldn't hear him, not over the sound she was making as her throat went raw and her air ran out.

Her sight grayed out; the blue of Tsar’s eyes was the only color she could see as he looked into hers and spoke as he strained at the dagger. He had wrapped his tail around the blade to try pushing it aside, his blood oozing out from where the dagger had cut him, and then Zathos joined in. It registered as little more than idle curiosity for Eni that it had shifted forms, its wings gone as it had reformed its body to have four powerful anchoring legs and two massive arms. Zathos reached out, wrapping its mighty fingers around Tsar's, and—

Not for you, construct.

Zathos was swatted aside by an invisible force that struck it like a hammer. The monster vanished from sight almost instantly, and Eni looked up at Tsar. He hadn't spoken the first words that had penetrated her haze of pain, and although they had been in Eni's voice she knew who had really thought them.

The obsidian blade pushed forward another fraction of an inch, and Eni squirmed and flailed desperately, hoping that dealing with the monster might have distracted their unwelcome guest for long enough to get free.

Stand, leveret.

All at once, Eni was no longer flat on her back with a dagger she couldn't let go of forcing itself between her ribs. She was standing next to Tsar in the middle of a vast plain quite unlike anywhere she had ever been. It was all rocks, seemingly endless miles of them, dotting the landscape as far as she could see. There were no plants or buildings, just a reach of dull grays and blacks beneath a steely sky. Lightning flickered in the distance, the thunder taking long seconds to reach the three of them.

The third wasn't Zathos.

The Visitor had taken on Eni's form once more, one paw resting atop the gravid swell of her belly as the other languidly grasped the obsidian dagger. She was as nude as ever, her eyes bright and insolent as she regarded Eni and Tsar. Tsar glared at her, the hackles of his neck raised, and she smiled at him wickedly. Eni reached out and grabbed his paw, feeling the tension running through his body as his eyes bored holes through her copy. 

"Here we are once more, All-King," the Visitor said, her smile softening into something warm and friendly. 

Her voice and tone were indistinguishable from Eni's, but there was still something more to her. The strange being was neither enormous nor shrouded in flames, but the air around her seemed almost to crackle and dance anyway. Looking into her eyes was like staring into a hurricane, the power inside her obvious. "Do you remember this day?" she asked, gesturing to take in their surroundings, but Tsar answered her question with one of his own.

"Why?" he spat, and the Visitor delicately raised the dagger she held up to her mouth and licked it.

Eni's stomach turned; her own blood was still on the blade, and the Visitor ran her tongue thoughtfully around inside her mouth as she considered the taste. "A remarkable flavor," she said, looking at Tsar, "She's very sweet. Do you ever miss the flesh of mortals?"

"No," Tsar said flatly, and the Visitor chuckled softly.

Her laughter was rich and feminine, a perfect copy of Eni's, but so resonant that it made her fur stand on end. As if sensing Eni's unease, the Visitor's eyes drifted to her before returning to Tsar. "Can she tell?" she asked, her face almost playfully inquisitive.

"What… What do you want?" Eni asked, and as the words left her mouth she realized how horribly insolent they sounded.

"Nergora?" she hastily added, although that was hardly any more polite, but the Visitor's smile widened.

"So very brave, my leveret," she replied, "Surely you of all beings understand the allure of curiosity?"

"Curiosity?" Eni repeated, aghast, "You… You…"

She didn't have the words to describe how appalled she was; Eni could hardly imagine anything more monstrous than tearing the Circle apart and killing thousands in the name of finding novelties. An unfamiliar surge of anger, as sharp as the dagger that had pierced her chest, ran through Eni's chest and overpowered her fear. "How dare you?" she whispered, and the ground under their feet trembled.

Eni felt fiercely glad; she could feel her power begging to be let loose and she made no attempt to stop it. It surged out of her, digging into the harsh and rocky terrain, and for a moment Eni could feel everything down to the smallest pebble. Solid basalt and nearly weightless pumice responded to her touch, along with obsidian just waiting to be split into planes of incredible sharpness. Eni resolutely prepared herself, letting go of Tsar's paw and sucking in a breath as she looked at the Visitor.

She appeared no more threatened than Eni would have been by an infant; if anything she seemed delighted. "How wonderfully spirited," she said, "I'll be expecting no less of you, All-King."

Tsar threw himself at the Visitor as Eni called forth to the stony landscape, and—

The sky changed.

The dismal and sunless gray that could have been morning or afternoon was gone, replaced by the darkness of midnight with only a few stars visible. Eni's stomach lurched; she was no longer standing but instead lying flat on her back, which was grass rather than pebbly grit. Her chest ached abominably, and she winced as she sat up, touching her wound; there was a hole through her shirt about an inch wide, just to the right of her left breast. Her injury felt nearly as wide and almost as deep; it had clotted but every breath hurt.

The obsidian dagger was still in her right paw, but the instant she saw it she let go, a surge of relief flowing through her when her fingers actually released it. The blade hit a rock and shattered, and Eni didn't regret seeing it go in the slightest. At her side, Tsar was stirring, his brow crinkling with worry before he spotted her and his face smoothed over. "You saw her too, didn't you?" Eni asked softly, and he nodded slowly.

"How are you?" he asked, gesturing at her injury but not quite daring to touch it.

"It'll heal," she said, repressing a grimace; until it did she was sure walking was going to be painful.

They sat in silence for a moment, and Eni looked about, trying to get her bearings. The night was dim and shadowy, but compared to the gloom of the tunnels it felt nearly as bright as noon. She could just make out the crumbling walls of Idrun from where they sat, and nearby there was a massive hillock of dirt and rocks churned up from the grass that looked as though it had formed quite recently. On a large and relatively flat rock, a message in Modern Circi had been carved as neatly as if it had been printed by a machine:

I pulled you free when the tunnel began collapsing. I have gone to forage for food and water and will return by two hours past midnight.

  • Zathos

Eni read it aloud for Tsar, seeing him puzzling over the words, and said, "I think I made the tunnels collapse. What I did when we saw the Visitor… I… I just couldn't help it."

"I understand," Tsar said quietly, and she was sure he did.

"We'll have to figure out another way," she said with a sigh, but the idea didn't feel quite as impossible as it should have.

"We will," Tsar replied, his voice confident, and they lapsed back into a companionable silence, the only sounds the cool night breeze and the chirps of insects.

A thought suddenly occurred to Eni and she offered him a weak smile. "Been awhile," she said, and when he cocked his head to the side she added, "Since it was just the two of us, I mean."

"It has," he said quietly, "Don't like talking in front of it."

"Zathos saved us," Eni countered, "It didn’t have to. I'm sure it would have been fine; I doubt it could be crushed to death, not with the way it can change shapes."

The memory of the monster reforming itself into a shape better suited to trying to pry the dagger from her paws came to mind, and she added, "It tried helping earlier, too."

"Maybe," Tsar said, "But it is a monster. I know."

He spoke the words heavily, as though painfully burdened by them, and Eni reached out and touched his paw. "You're not a monster, Tsar," she replied, but he shook his head, his pale eyes not quite meeting her.

"Have you forgotten who I am?" he asked, the words slow and heavy, "What you've seen?"

"I know exactly what you are," Eni said, and it wasn't Tsar as a mindless beast she thought of, or even him as the bold and arrogant Slayer he had once been.

"And what am I, Eni?" Tsar asked, his voice barely above a whisper and almost cracking as he said her name.

She wrapped her fingers around his, and he didn't pull back. "To this… 'rabbit?'" she said, smiling at him as she used his word, "Everything."

He didn't smile back. Not with his mouth, at least; his muzzle remained set in a grim line, but Eni thought his face still cleared in some subtle way no one else would have seen. "Some may get the wrong impression, rabbit," he replied, but he sounded almost grateful.

Eni didn't reply. She was sure Zathos would return soon. She was sure they would have to decide what their next destination ought to be. The Visitor was still waiting in Invermir, and the Circle was still overrun by her monsters. If anything, they had taken a step backwards rather than forwards, but Eni found she didn't quite mind. They would press on as soon as they could, but she wasn't ready for the moment to end.

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