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Chapter 64: Sentinels of the Foundry

Updated: Jun 13

Tin listened gravely as Eni explained what she had seen, his attention never leaving her. When she had come to the end, lifting the gleaming statue of the hare for emphasis, there was a long silence punctuated only by the calls of the Avians in the sky above. Eni could hear the sharp cries of a raptor and the chatter of magpies as the birds keeping watch called back and forth, but Tin said nothing.

His tail swayed slowly from side to side, his expression thoughtful until at last he spoke.

"Were you… yourself?" Tin asked in a low voice.

"Yes," Eni blurted before thinking about the question, but then she frowned.

"No," she said, "I'm… I can't explain it."

The vision she had seen of soaring above the clouds felt like a dream slipping through her grasp, the harder she tried to remember the details the more they evaded her. Her body had been undeniably hers, and yet…

Eni sighed, her breath puffing a strand of fur out of her eye. "I don't know," she said, and Tin nodded slowly.

Zathos hadn't moved from where it stood at the doorway to the workshop, its body utterly still, and Eni could feel its strange eyes boring into her. "But someone's trying to help us," Eni said, turning to the monster, "Even if it's not your master."

"The Wright is not a hare," Zathos said, its voice utterly bland and flat.

"Could be a trick," Tin suggested, but Eni shook her head.

"No," she said firmly, "I felt her mind. Understood it. Whoever she is, she's not the Visitor."

Eni half-expected the wolf to protest, but instead his gaze seemed to turn inward. "I've… been helped before," he said quietly, his fingers running absently along the short quillons of his whip-sword, and then he looked up.

"What's she trying to tell us?" he asked, and Eni's answer was immediate.

"I think she was showing me how the Circle was made. Not the cities, but…" Eni said, trailing off as she lifted her arms and swept them around to take their surroundings in.

"The Aureole Mountains are a crater," Eni said, "I'm sure of it. And Gwared… It used to be so much taller. I wish you could have seen it."

"I… She… fought something," Eni continued, fumbling over her words as she strained to hold onto the feeling she had gotten, flying above the Cradle long before it had taken its present form, "Something so powerful…"

Eni ran her paw against her head, smoothing her ears back. Her heart had begun to race, the form of the shape silhouetted against the sun just beyond her ability to recall it, and she shuddered as an echo of the dread she had felt filled her once again. "It flattened a mountain and created a ring of new ones," Tin finished for her, and Eni simply nodded.

"There was some kind of message I was supposed to understand. There must be," Eni said, "I just don't know what it was."

They lapsed back into silence, Eni mindlessly turning the little golden figurine over in her paws. Tin looked at the statue, and Eni wordlessly offered it to him; the wolf took it without hesitation, holding it close to his nose as his nostrils flared. "Do you smell anyone else on it?" Eni ventured after a moment, "Zathos thought Rongen might have been studying it."

"That so?" Tin asked, ignoring her question as he looked up from the golden hare and to the monster.

"There is no evidence anyone else entered the room before the Archivist did," Zathos replied, "It is made of Aurum Regia; the technique for manufacturing the alloy was lost to mortal smiths within thirty years of the Emperor's death. The logical conclusion is that the Tinkerer acquired the figurine as a sample for study."

"Logical," Tin repeated, a thoughtful tone coming into his voice, "What do you think?"

He offered the sculpture back to her, and Eni gently took it. Although Tin had been holding it tightly with his bare paws, the metal was still cool to the touch even through her gloves. Eni studied it closer, trying to spot any detail she might have overlooked, but it was just as it had been before. The statue showed a male hare, distinctive antlers rising from his forehead, dressed in a strangely cut tunic. His eyes seemed somehow both resolute and haunted, his head downturned and glancing to the right. Eni had never seen any such mammal, neither in life nor described in any book, and yet there was still an eerie familiarity to him.

Perhaps it was simply because he was an Aberrant, as both she and the strange guest were, and Eni set her musings aside to focus on the form and techniques that had gone into making the statue itself. "It doesn't match the style of any artisan I know of, but it is consistent with other pieces from Wordermund's time," Eni said after a moment more of scrutinizing the object, "Zathos is right. Anything made out of Aurum Regia would have to be millennia old."

"It's not," Tin said quietly, and Eni stared up into his face.

Zathos blinked in its unsettling sequential fashion as all four of its eyes turned to the wolf, cocking its head to the side. "That's impossible," Eni protested, "No one can even make a sheet of Aurum Regia anymore."

She held the hare figurine up, letting it gleam in the dull light coming in through the ruined roof of the workshop. "Let alone something this complicated," she added.

Tin's paw went to his whip-sword, his thumb running down along the hilt. "My weapon. The one I used during the Scourge," he said simply, "Had that same metal in it."

"That was Nidhogg, though. It must have been ancient," Eni suggested, but Tin shook his head.

"Watched it being forged," he said.

He glanced at Zathos and added, "By a bear."

"The Wright is not a bear," the monster said, and Tin's eyes narrowed.

"What is she, then?" he asked, his voice hard.

"I cannot say," Zathos replied, "My perception differs from yours significantly, All-King."

Eni was reminded of the bizarre and chaotic vision she had gotten while touching the monster's mind, wondering what the world looked like through the creature's four eyes. Tin's frown deepened a degree and he turned back to her, pointedly ignoring Zathos. "There's magic in this," he told Eni softly, wrapping his paws around hers and the golden statue, "Listen."

Eni strained her ears, trying to blot out the calls of the birds above and the gentle pulse of Tin's heart. His fingers were as warm as the statue was cold, but Eni pushed the sensation aside as she closed her eyes and focused. She reached out, tentatively at first, and for endless minutes nothing happened. The figurine was just a void in her grasp, steadfastly silent.

And then she heard it.

The sound was faint but beautifully melancholy, the music as lovely and gentle as the smile of the strange hare. Eni's heart ached with it, grief and hope melded together until there was no knowing where one began and the other ended. Tears streamed down Eni's cheeks as she blinked her eyes open, her vision blurry as she looked down at the little statue.

"You're right," she said, swallowing hard, "It's…"

Words escaped Eni, the possibilities too vast to name, but Tin's face was understanding as he carefully took the figurine from her. Eni pulled out a handkerchief, wiping at her face, and after a moment she had composed herself enough to speak. "But what does it tell us?" she asked, unable to contain her frustration, "Have you ever seen anything like it?"

"No," Tin said bluntly, "Have you?"

Eni laughed, the chuckle escaping her before she could stop it. "I've seen hundreds of statues. Thousands, maybe. Ones I've visited myself and ones that are only left as drawings in old tomes," she said, shaking her head ruefully, "All shapes and sizes, from fertility idols the size of my thumb to…"

She trailed off, her ears suddenly standing straight up and her mouth going dry as realization struck her. "Eni?" Tin prompted when she hadn't continued after a moment, but Eni had already pulled her journal from her satchel and was frantically flipping through the battered book.

"Look!" she said triumphantly as she held it aloft, opened to a drawing she had done years ago.

Tin's eyes widened, and Zathos crept silently over to see for itself as Eni tapped the page. "I thought there was something familiar about this figurine, but it wasn’t only because it was a hare. I've seen it before and so have you."

As Eni glanced at the illustration herself, there was no doubt or uncertainty left. It showed the Faceless Kings of Vornstrom, the massive and crumbling statues that had stood a silent vigil outside Wondobar's citadel since time immemorial, as Eni had seen them on her first visit. In the memory Tin had shared with her, and even in the oldest books, the figures were much the same as they were in the present. The chisel marks that had obliterated their features were nearly unrecognizable after the passage of millennia, their bodies worn nearly to featureless lumps.

But even as badly deteriorated as one of the figures was, it was unquestionably depicting the same mammal in the same pose as the golden statue. The details had nearly vanished from the stone original, but its arms and paws were in the exact same position and Eni was sure that if its head had been intact it would have been gazing in the same direction.

Tin looked from the drawing to the figurine and then back again. "A miniature copy," he said thoughtfully, "Why?"

Eni resisted the urge to pace, keeping her journal aloft for Tin's scrutiny as she thought out loud. "The… Guest, I suppose we could call her… She wanted me to make a connection," she said slowly, "It has to be where he's looking."

She pulled the book away, using a page that had come loose as a ruler. "He'd be looking here," Eni said, tapping the spot.

"At the stele," Tin said quietly, "Same words on it as Idrun."

"That's another entrance," Eni said, her excitement growing as the pieces slid into place, "Underneath it; that has to be right! Which means…"

She deflated, her stomach sinking as the realization hit her. "We should have just gone to Vornstrom," she said, "We… I should have figured it out before the Guest gave me the answer."

Eni grimaced, her fingers tightening around her journal. "It took us days to get here," she said, "We were already so close."

She could imagine the map in her head, seeing the path they had taken around the wrong side of Gwared Mountain as they got further away from their destination. "And I gambled it all on Rongen's airship being done," she continued bitterly, sinking to the floor as her notebook fell from her nerveless fingers.

Her own foolishness gnawed at her; how could she have been so careless? The solution ought to have been right in front of her; the identical wording on the stele in Vornstrom and on the entrance of the quarry in Idrun should have been enough of a hint. And in missing the obvious, how many had already paid the price?

“It shouldn’t be me,” she whispered, staring down at the rubble covering the ground, “I haven’t… I don’t deserve my power. I never have.”

Her eyes felt as heavy as lead but they were terribly clear, no tears coming as she took in the ruins of the laboratory. Every mistake she had ever made had led her to where she found herself, surrounded by the dead and with an army of monsters surely waiting at their destination. Her stomach twisted and churned, her ears burning with shame, and—


The wolf's low voice interrupted her thoughts; he had crouched to look her in the eye, his face so close she could feel his breath and smell his musk. Tin held her gaze, and although he didn't speak another word his face said it all. Eni nodded, letting out a slow breath. "You're right," she said weakly, accepting his paw as he pulled her back to her feet, "What matters now is getting there as soon as we can."

"Traveling on foot, I estimate it will take you two and a half days to reach Vornstrom," Zathos said bluntly.

Tin shook his head. "Not going to walk," he said, "Let's go."

He set off for the exit from the workshop without a second glance, but as he pulled the door open Eni noticed he was wearing a bracelet on his right arm. It was a chunky ring of wood, dyed a cheerful shade of orange nearly the same color as Eni's eyes. His new bit of jewelry was a bit battered and gnawed-looking, but she wasn't surprised.

It was the chew toy that had belonged to Rongen's grandson.

As they passed through the grand foyer of the tower, Eni gathered up a large blanket from one of the piles of belongings and threw it to Zathos. "Cover yourself up," she said, even as the monster's appearance was already shifting back into its more mammalian form, "You'll draw less attention."

"Yes, Archivist," Zathos agreed; its wings had reformed its imitation of a cloak and a hood, but it wrapped the blanket around itself like a sort of poncho, further obscuring its odd proportions.

Tin was already hurrying across the grounds and toward the gate, but not so quickly that Eni couldn't keep up. She fell in step at his side, and he spoke before she could ask her question. "We're going to the castle," he said simply, "I'll declare the Right of Conveyance."

Eni frowned, her eyes searching up and down the wolf. He looked shabbier than he normally did, the faded gray fabric of his cloak tattered and full of holes at the hem. "That's…" she began as delicately as she could, "Do you think they'll believe you're a knight?"

"They will," he said, his words almost casual, but there was steel behind them.

Eni offered no further protests, focusing instead on maintaining the swift pace that Tin was setting. They were heading unerringly for Titus Castle, the looming towers and parapets offering an obvious reference point, but they kept having to take detours. Sometimes the street would be blocked with debris, the bricks of smashed shops all jumbled together with the ruined wares. Sometimes the ground had given way, the sewers running beneath the city visible through yawning chasms and filling the air with their rank stench.

The gritty wind blew fitfully, the dust stinging Eni's eyes as they pressed on. Compared to the streets nearer the main gate, Tormurghast felt horribly empty; long stretches of time went past without any other mammals coming into view. Were it not for the Avians far above, Eni could have almost imagined that they were utterly alone, pushing ever onwards toward their destination.

She tried moving as fast as she possibly could, nearly losing her balance as she picked her way down an unsteady pile of enormous blocks, and once or twice Tin's tail lashed out to gently keep her upright. The wolf didn't seem to be having any difficulty himself, and at his side Zathos was unerringly sure-footed, the monster's head remaining perfectly level beneath its improvised shroud.

Eni was so focused on navigating around a dangerously glistening pile of broken glass that she almost didn't hear the low flutter of approaching wings, but she managed not to jump when someone spoke. "Professor Siverets?" the high and sweetly feminine voice of Commissionaire Gneisa called, the magpie swooping low before landing in front of her.

The little bird bobbed her head, apparently pleased that she had found them. "Did you find your friend?" she asked curiously, and Eni swallowed hard.

"You have my sympathies," the Avian said solemnly, bowing respectfully.

Eni had come to a stop, and at her side Tin and Zathos did the same. The monster regarded the bird with its customary inscrutability, its unpleasant face mostly hidden from view, and Tin was nearly as neutral. "Thank you," Eni said softly, "May I ask why you've come to see me?"

She said the words as politely as she could, but her mind was racing through all of the terrible possibilities for why a commissionaire might have taken an interest in her. Tin's paw was casually close to his whip-sword, but Eni desperately hoped he wouldn't have a reason to draw it; the sky above was still full of Avians and she had no doubt that more eyes than Gneisa's were watching them.

The magpie uttered a quick burst of song before replying, and although her beak made her utterly incapable of smiling Eni got the sense that the bird was doing her best to be friendly. "You're not in trouble, professor," she said, "Far from it."

Eni heard the flap of wings again, and a moment later there was a blur of rich brown before another Avian landed at Gneisa's side. The newcomer was far larger than the little magpie, his beak hooked and as wickedly pointed as his enormous talons, and Eni recognized him. "Archduke Avamezin of House Tainia is formally requesting your presence at Titus Castle, Professor Siverets," Fidelius said, respectfully dipping his fearsome head.

The golden eagle looked almost the same as he had the last time Eni had seen him, but there was no boredom or irritation in either his features or his voice any more. He was sharply focused, his strongly accented Jarku words each perfectly formed.

Eni shot a quick glance at Tin, which he returned levelly, clearly deferring to her judgment, and a strange warmth seemed to flow into her heart. "I am pleased to accept," she said, bowing as she answered in the same tongue, "My companions and I are honored by the Archduke's invitation."

Fidelius nodded brusquely. "Follow us, then," he said, "It'll be faster than letting you try to find your own way."

The two Avians launched themselves into the sky at once, both flying slow enough to follow on foot as they headed for the nearest intersection. Eni hurried after them, and the going immediately became far easier. Although they took far more turns than she would have ever planned for herself, every street they went down was either entirely intact or had already been cleared of the worst of the rubble. In short order, the castle was before them, the damage that had been visible even from a distance on full display.

Although the wreckage of the fallen towers had been partially cleared, no attempt had been made to repair them; clearly the City Guard had more important priorities to deal with. The great gardens surrounding the main building were unrecognizable, so thoroughly covered with white tents that the ground was almost completely invisible. Where it was, the grass and delicate flowers had been churned into mud by countless feet; even the fountains had been shut off and filled with crates of supplies.

Eni could just barely hear the faint and pained cries of mammals coming from the hasty field hospital mixed with the sharp orders of doctors and nurses. Fidelius and Gneisa led them through the chaos, exchanging a quick flurry of musical words in the Avian language to get them past the guards that stood watch at regular intervals. Both Avians landed neatly as they entered the castle, walking quickly as they led them along a dizzyingly complicated route.

At long last, they finally stopped in front of an enormous set of doors guarded by a thylacine and a cougar in the unmistakable uniforms of the Concurrence of the Carnars. The two mammals ushered them into a room that might have been beautiful if it hadn't been so gloomy, its highly vaulted ceiling invisible in the dark. All the curtains were drawn, admitting only the tiniest slivers of light along their borders, and no lanterns or candles had been lit. A massive table dominated the space, covered with untidy piles of paper, and mammals dashed about, too many voices speaking Jarku at once for Eni to make out many individual words.

As she entered, though, Aza's voice cut through the din and uttered a command. "Leave us, please," he said, and the room emptied at once.

Eni stepped forward, squinting as she tried to make out her friend; she was sure he was sitting at one end of the table, but it was too dark to see him as more than a vague shape. At his side was the vast and ghostly white form of what could only be Signa, the polar bear remaining loyally in place. "Professor Siverets and her traveling companions, my lord," Fidelius said respectfully, the eagle bowing low.

"Thank you, Fidelius," Aza said, his words slow and tired-sounding as he stood, "And you, Commissionaire. Please accept my gratitude for your efforts."

He switched smoothly from Jarku to Circi as he addressed the magpie, although Eni was sure the Avian was fluent in both tongues, and then politely dismissed her and the eagle. Once the door had closed for the final time, and they were truly alone, some of the formality went out of Aza's tone. "I wish I could say it was nice to see you again, Eni, but considering the present circumstances…" he said as he approached, some of the usual warmth and charm back in the words.

"Aza…" Signa said, the word carrying a crushing weight of emotion, but the tiger simply chuckled.

"It's good to be breathing the same air again, at least," he said, "I imagine it's rather dark in here for you, though. Signa, if you wouldn't mind getting the curtains?"

The polar bear hesitated for only a moment before leaving his side, shuffling over and pulling open the nearest set. The drab light from outside, filtered through all the dust in the air, didn't do much to brighten the room but it did let Eni finally fully make out Aza's face. The tiger seemed to be staring at a spot just above Eni's head, and even in the poorly lit room his normally vivid eyes seemed far too dull. "Is that better?" he asked, smiling genially even as his gaze still failed to meet hers.

He was blind.

"What happened?" Eni whispered as the realization struck her and she clutched his paw, but Aza just sighed.

"Ichor…" he said, "Don't let it get in your eyes."

He spoke the words almost casually, shrugging his vast shoulders beneath his richly embroidered cloak. "But my nose and my ears are as sharp as ever," he continued, "As is my mind, or so I'd like to think."

"Oh, Aza," she said, but he waved her sympathy aside as he gently pulled his giant paw free of hers and gestured for Signa to close the curtains again.

"It was worth the sacrifice," he said, "Those creatures would have killed Queen Marsenn and taken the highway otherwise; it's quite a story, really. But not one we have time for me to do it justice, I'm afraid."

"Why'd you want to talk to her?" Tin asked, the words blunt, and Aza answered at once.

"You've been keeping Eni safe, haven't you, Mister Tsar? And you…" Aza said, trailing off as his nostrils wrinkled and his head turned in Zathos's direction, "You I would remember meeting."

"I am Zathos," the monster said by way of introduction, and Aza turned back to Eni.

"After the… end of initial negotiations with King Renald,” he began delicately, “I remained here with my entourage. Sabor and his mother are far from the Circle now, praise Roren. I… Well, I suppose I should get to the point. I heard about what happened in Terregor, Eni. I can't tell you how glad I am that you're here now. Were you…"

He trailed off, and Eni nodded, a painfully familiar lump forming in her throat before she realized Aza couldn't see the gesture. "I was," she croaked, and the tiger's face twisted sympathetically.

"I've been waiting for any news about the Archivist," he said, "I wish I could tell you he's been found, but… Survivors are being recovered every day. It's still possible."

Eni didn't have the heart to tell him that no one would ever find the markhor, not with his body buried deep under the foundation of the Terraces of Gorin, and she managed to utter a small sound of gratitude. "But there's been more going on in the Circle than that," Aza continued, "Very peculiar events have been making their way to my ears ever since we parted. Wordermund's tomb opening… A ferry suffering a strange accident… And a certain professor being kidnapped in Terregor shortly before the city collapsed."

"You've been keeping an… You've been tracking me," Eni replied, hastily swapping words, and Aza nodded.

"I won't insult your intelligence by denying it," he said, "And to answer your question, sir wolf…"

The tiger turned his blind eyes to Tin before he continued. "I have only one for you before you hear my reason," Aza said slowly, "Are you the Slayer?"

Eni's mouth fell open in shock, and the air in the room suddenly felt tense and charged. Signa stared at him, awe and suspicion warring on the polar bear’s face. Tin didn't answer at first, the wolf's face unreadable as he stood before Aza. 

"I am," Tin said, the words barely more than a whisper, and the tiger fell to his knees, his head low.

"Our fangs are at your command," he said solemnly, and Tin's answer was immediate.

"Take us to Vornstrom," he said, "Quickly."

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