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Chapter 65: Raenir’s Portents

Updated: Jun 21



"We move at once," Aza replied, still kneeling with his head downturned, and then he clapped twice.

The sound was enormous, echoing in the vast room, and a moment later Eni could hear footsteps as the tiger's staff rushed back. "You knew before Ghabarahata, didn’t you?" Eni asked quietly, staring at Aza as he stood.

He smiled, his head turning just a degree too far as he considered the space above her. "I've suspected for some time that you were after more than just the Slayer's final resting place," he said, his voice as low as hers, "As for your success in finding him…"

He trailed off, the reverence in his voice obvious. "The world's coming apart at its seams, Eni. Aerodan needs her champion, and who better than you to find him?" he asked.

As he spoke, Signa pressed a beautifully gilt helm into his paw, its visor flowing seamlessly into dramatically swooping wings that curved off the sides. The tiger grimaced as he groped for a better grip, placing it on his head and obscuring his blind eyes. "A polite fiction," he said in a low voice; he clearly didn't need to see Eni's face to understand her confusion, "And one of the reasons I've kept the lights dim; If I hide my infirmity, they pretend not to notice."

The servants had opened the door and respectfully entered before she could ask what other reasons he had, the predators supplicating themselves before their Archduke. "We're going to see the queen," Aza said, smoothly switching to Jarku and brushing one paw against his helmet, "I have to say my thanks for her kind gift."

In short order, an honor guard had formed around them, and Aza's steps were as confident as usual as they left the room. Signa was closer to him than ever, the polar bear's paw occasionally drifting against his back or shoulder as she wordlessly helped guide him. At Eni's right, Tin's features were grim and impatient, his urgency written in his every movement. On her left, Zathos's face was a void of expression where it showed under its hood, the monster moving briskly. The soldiers kept a rapid pace, and although Eni was utterly lost after the first few turns they were eventually brought back to the castle's grounds.

Aza almost imperceptibly winced as he set foot outside; a few feeble rays of sunlight had managed to penetrate the haze covering the city, making his helm and the brooch holding his cloak together reflect it brilliantly. The tiger didn't slow at all even as the ground grew uneven, the mud squelching between their toes as they were led to the largest of the tents that had been set up. A soldier in the livery of the Tormurghast City Guard dashed ahead, the thick canvas of the tent doing nothing to stop Eni from hearing him breathlessly announce Aza's arrival. Other sounds, all of them far less pleasant, made their way to Eni's ears and she steeled herself for the worst as the flap was flung aside and they entered.

The tent's interior was a nightmare.

Dozens of cots had been crammed into it, and on each one was a terribly injured mammal. Predators and prey alike lay on their sickbeds, stretching out to every corner. A coyote missing both her legs, the stumps wrapped in stained linen strips emitting a powerfully rotten smell, was closest to the entrance, her eyes feverishly bright as she panted weakly. At her side was a caribou whose head was a ruined mess, half-caved in and with one of his graceful antlers missing. If it weren't for the agonized rise and fall of his chest Eni would have thought him dead, but even he wasn't the most badly injured. Some of the mammals were so horribly maimed that Eni couldn't even tell their species, what was left of their bodies shrouded in bandages as they cried out or begged for water.

Doctors and nurses moved between the injured and the dying like wraiths, their once gleaming-white clothes splattered with blood, but one figure towered above all of them. At the center of the tent was an operating theater, its large bed surrounded by a number of workbenches covered by horrible-looking tools and glass jars. A wolf in the tattered remains of a League uniform lay on the bed, his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth, and his arm had been carefully strapped down as a vast surgeon sewed it back together.

Queen Marsenn had none of her usual trappings of royalty, but there was no mistaking the giraffe even without her elegant clothes. She was dressed the same as all of the other doctors without as much as a circlet atop her head, let alone a crown, and an aura of calm authority seemed to radiate from her as she deftly put in the last few stitches and undid the bindings keeping the limb motionless.

"How's the patient?" Aza asked in a low voice as they approached, and the giraffe bowed her long neck.

"Pike-Captain Yevigini ought to keep his arm," she replied, just as softly, and on the bed the wolf stirred.

Almost all the fur on his left arm had been shaved off, exposing a hideously twisted wound intersected with surgical cuts. It had all been neatly sewn together with fine silk threads, and although Yevigini's fingers trembled he managed to clumsily put his paws together into a formal Carnaron greeting. "Hail His Grace, Archduke Avamezin," he slurred, his eyes dull, "I'll…"

The wolf's mouth moved soundlessly for a moment, his breathing feeble and slow. "Learn to play… the lute," he mumbled, "I swear it."

Aza smiled gently, his fingers carefully questing for the soldier's face. "Rest," he ordered quietly as he put his palm against Yevigini's forehead, and the tension left the wolf's face as he nodded off to his drugged slumber.

"Have him checked every hour," the queen ordered the nearest nurse, and the sheep gave her a deep bow as he quickly made a note.

Another nurse presented Marsenn with a clean piece of linen and a bowl of soapy water, and she began scrubbing at her bloody hooves as she stood.

"Let's walk, Aza," Marsenn said, speaking the tiger's nickname with a casual familiarity that Eni found shocking, but he didn't seem to mind.

Queen Marsenn looked to Signa and made a wordless gesture that the bear returned before subtly guiding Aza in the right direction as they picked their way between the rows of beds and toward the exit. The giraffe carefully considered first Eni and then Tin, a slight frown crossing her face. "I remember you from the talks," she said, "Miss… Saiveren, was it?"

"Eni Siverets, your majesty," she corrected as politely as she could, and the queen sighed wearily as one of her guards pushed the tent's flap open for her.

Her eyes were blood-shot and exhaustion seemed to pour off the giraffe in waves as she absently gestured. "Of course. My apologies," she said.

"I have a favor to ask, Ana," Aza said smoothly, "Transportation to Vornstrom for Miss Siverets and her companions."

"There's a caravan departing the day after tomorrow, I believe," Marsenn replied, "I'll—"

"Not fast enough," Tin interrupted, and the giraffe looked almost incredulous at the wolf's impudence, "Has to be now."

She stared at him a moment, and Aza jumped in. "I'll explain," he said, and in a lower tone added, "Privately."

The queen frowned, but she dismissed her soldiers as Aza did the same, leading the way to a tent Eni had nearly overlooked. It was much smaller than the ones being used as hospitals, wedged into a gap between four much larger tents. Its exterior might have been a rich red at one point, but mud and dust had made it nearly the same color as the ground underneath.

When Marsenn ushered them inside, however, it was almost as opulent as the outside was dingy. An elegantly carved settee was pressed against one wall, and a large wooden table with an ornate set of lanterns atop it was in the center. Low chairs had been set before it in a sweeping arch, and the ceiling overhead was high enough that Marsenn didn't have to stoop by as much as an inch.

The giraffe lowered herself carefully into the settee, settling herself in as Signa guided Aza to a chair and dimmed the lanterns before helping the tiger remove his helmet. Tin remained standing, pacing the small tent as though it were a cell with his jaw clenched grimly tight. "What I have to tell you may sound unbelievable," Aza said, "But it is the truth. This wolf is the Slayer."

Queen Marsenn was silent for a moment, blinking as she turned from Aza to Tin, and then she spoke. "If—" she began, and Eni could already hear the faint note of skepticism in her voice.

Tin interrupted without speaking a word, throwing back his cloak with his right arm as he drew his whip-sword with the left.

Even as he was pulling the weapon free, his tail deftly opened one of the pouches at its base and tossed its contents into the air. Eni had just enough time to see more than a dozen coins glitter in the light of the lanterns as they soared toward the ceiling, spreading apart as they got higher, and then Tin turned around.

His whip-sword was like something living, whistling through the air and sharply changing directions as it wound and unwound from his free arm. Eni could hear the metallic ringing of it striking the money, and then Tin turned back to face Marsenn, holding his right paw out. His weapon came so close to his fingers that Eni felt terribly afraid he was about to cut off his own paw, but instead the coins seemed to simply stack themselves.

Marsenn stared at the neat pile of metal discs with undisguised wonder as Tin resheathed his blade around his waist with a single smooth motion. "I trust I missed something rather remarkable?" Aza commented lightly, and the queen almost jumped before she looked at him.

"I believe you," she said quietly, and she bowed to Tin.

"I'll take you to the Augeas at once. Thank the Mother we protected the highway," she said, and Tin nodded sharply, his features not softening whatsoever.

"Were they attacking it?" Eni asked, frowning, and Marsenn exchanged a glance with Signa.

"We've spent years planning for what an invasion of the Circle might look like," Marsenn said slowly and almost apologetically, "By the Federation or the League."

Aza waved a paw dismissively. "My father has done much the same," he said, "I understand."

The giraffe inclined her head slightly. "The Aureole Mountains are our first and greatest defense," she continued, "But if an enemy breaches them… as these monsters have…"

Her eyes grew bright and hard. "Space is our second line of defense. The sovereign cities are too spread to take or hold easily. Which means, in the sort of war we've planned for, that the highways are critical. Whoever holds them controls the supply lines for the entire Circle. A normal enemy would have claimed our routes; that's what we've always expected. But these monsters…"

"Not like an army," Tin said bluntly, but Eni could see a glimmer of interest in his eyes.

"No," Marsenn agreed quietly, "Not like an army at all. More like a… a river."

Zathos had remained so utterly silent that Eni had almost forgotten it was there, but it spoke suddenly. "I do not comprehend," it said in its high and alien voice, its almost mammalian eyes blinking as it regarded the queen.

"They took the path of least resistance," Marsenn explained, "The beasts came pouring through the city like water, rushing for the castle as we tried to get everyone inside."

The giraffe swallowed hard, her voice heavy as she continued. "But they didn't stop at trying to breach Titus's defenses," she said softly, "I knew we had to protect the gate and the drawbridge or we’d lose it. Aza's… Archduke Avamezin's forces joined mine and…"

Her gaze became unfocused, her words trailing off, and for the first time Eni noticed that Marsenn's long and graceful neck was dotted in spots with bandages. "We held," Aza said firmly, "Until the monsters retreated, we held."

The tent fell silent, Tin grimacing as he considered the story. "Where are they going?" he asked, but Eni was sure he didn’t need the queen to tell him.

"Our scouts say they're advancing on Vornstrom in a perfectly straight line, no matter the terrain, and completely ignoring the highway," Marsenn replied, "And rather more slowly than they descended upon us."

Eni frowned, trying to puzzle the details together. The Begotten had utterly and abruptly changed tactics, and the timing could only possibly be related to one thing. "Three days ago," she said, and Tin nodded.

"When we were in Idrun," he said quietly, "She's doing something."

"She?" Marsenn asked, obviously puzzled.

"There's… There's someone behind these monsters," Eni said, "Someone the Slayer has to face. That's why we need to go to Vornstrom. But if that's where the monsters are headed…"

"The highway ought to be safe enough," Aza said, "My soldiers will follow, along with whatever you can spare, your majesty."

His blind eyes turned toward Marsenn, just a bit too low. "King Renald's already there," Aza continued, "Between his forces and the Circle's legions…"

"The Slayer will have a path to the city," Marsenn finished for him, and Eni felt her heart lighten as the giraffe pushed herself to her feet.

"Come along," she said, beckoning as she made her way to the tent's exit.

Aza groped for his helm, placing it back on before they left the tent. His face was almost entirely hidden by it, but Eni saw him grimace as they set foot outside. "Does the light bother you?" she asked quietly, and he nodded minutely.

"It's painful now," he said softly, "Shades and shapes unlike anything you've ever seen, all changing as I turn. So brilliant and dazzling…"

Aza chuckled ruefully. "It's almost worth being blind," he said, a slight smile touching his face, but Eni's blood had run cold in her veins.

"Impossible colors?" she whispered, her mouth suddenly dry and her lips numb.

"Yes," Aza replied, sounding startled, "How—"

Before he could say anything more, Eni turned to him, reaching up and pulling his helm off. The tiger's dull eyes blinked and watered in the feeble sunshine as they widened in surprise, and Eni put her paws against his cheeks, her thumbs nestled against the corners of his eyelids. She sucked in a deep breath, reaching out with something more than her fingers. She felt the tiger's mind pressing against hers, the energy that burned inside him as faint and dim as a match but still as warm as a bonfire, but there was something more, something that scuttled out of her grasp. Eni clenched her teeth, her eyes squeezed grimly shut, and—

Her stomach churned and flopped, the ground falling out beneath her as she was suddenly somewhere else. What surrounded her was no longer a ruined garden filled with tents but instead one of the most elegant rooms she had ever seen. The ceiling vaulted so high above her that it was almost like being outdoors, the space wide and open. Enormous pillars, thicker than the mightiest oak at their bases but tapering off elegantly as they ascended, supported enormous buttresses that swooped and curved magnificently, as graceful as a dancer. A dazzling chandelier that looked nearly the size of a tavern, composed of what had to be thousands of pieces of cut crystal, filled the room with an even light, and where magnificent tapestries didn't cover the walls were the largest stained glass windows Eni had ever seen. The overall effect was just short of overwhelming, but the beauty of the room fell short in a single respect.

There was no color.

No matter where Eni looked, everything was black and white or shades of gray; even Eni's clothes had been leached to muddled tones. The richly embroidered wall-hangings and their enormous Jaws sigils were robbed of their power and made muted and dull, and the clouds outside the windows could barely be distinguished from the sky. "Aza?" she called out, her voice echoing strangely across the space as she crept forward.

She knew exactly where she was, although she had never set foot in New Rushaya herself; there was no mistaking the Caiser's throne room from the illustrations of the opulent city that was the League's crown jewel. A massive raised plinth lay ahead of her, plush carpeting running down the steps that led to the seat of power shaped like the snarling jaws of a wolf, and behind it were larger than life statues of every previous Caiser who had ever ruled the nation.

The faces of all the stone predators were wise and solemn except for the shortest of their number. Ildrin Rein seemed almost amused, the fox's sharp features creased into a knowing look as though he was observing a joke only he understood, and at his feet was a grayish bundle that suddenly stirred and sat up. The rich red-orange of Aza's fur was blindingly vivid as the sole spot of color in all the room, so shocking that Eni almost didn't notice that the tiger looked terribly wrong.

Aza's resemblance to Sabor was more pronounced than ever; he looked as though he could be his own son's younger brother. Eni was at least a foot and a half taller than him, towering over a tiger who couldn't have been more than nine or ten. His clothes were just as colorless as Eni's own, but his outfit had changed to a cloak made out of thick and oddly rubbery-looking leather that seemed almost too large for his slim frame.

"Eni?" he asked, gingerly standing up, his voice sounding just as young as he looked.

His eyes were still dully sightless, but they widened as he heard himself speak, his slender paws going to his throat. "What's happening?" he asked, "Why… How…"

Aza sounded utterly lost for words, his fingers running across his face and arms as he disbelievingly examined himself. "I'm so young," he said, and Eni had to bite back a laugh.

"We're in your head," she said, "In New Rushaya."

Eni doubted he would have understood any explanation of how it had happened, although she was equally unsure of her ability to describe what mentalism was. Aza chuckled, apparently amused by her answer. "This isn't exactly how I imagined you visiting the League," he said dryly, some of his normal composure back, "Do you mean this is magic?"

"It is," Eni replied, and the tiger's mouth parted in awe.

"It must be wonderful," he said, his sightless eyes roving the vast chamber.

"Aza… I wish you could see it," Eni said, and at her words the tiger sighed softly, a faint edge of frustration and longing coming into the sound.

She strained her ears, listening for anything that was out of place, but there was no sign of the sinister presence she had felt the moment her fingers made contact with Aza's head. "Stay close," she said, and his head tilted up at her.

"You sound the same," he observed as he groped his way nearer, "Just taller."

Eni began leading him away from the statues of long-dead caisers, looking about the room for anything that seemed out of place. "I am," she replied, smiling, and his next question was immediate.

"Why?"

"That's…" Eni began, trailing off as she tried coming up with an answer, absently staring at the enormous doors on the far side of the room.

"I don't know," she admitted at last, but it was the truth.

"Playing with powers beyond your comprehension rarely ends well," Eni's own voice observed from behind her, and even as she turned to face the source she knew what she was going to see.

The Visitor was sprawled insolently across the Caiser's throne, her elbow propping up her head on one armrest and her crossed legs dangling over the other. "Why are you here?" Eni asked, trying to sound fierce as she stared into the pitiless and brilliantly orange eyes of her double, "We're coming for you."

"Eni?" Aza asked, turning in a slow circle as his blind eyes darted back and forth, "Who are you talking to?"

"Impatience is a vice of mortals," the Visitor replied, utterly ignoring the tiger, "Particularly of your kind, leveret. Always in such a hurry…"

She sighed, opening her paw into a gesture of contemptuous dismissal, and at Eni's side Aza suddenly stopped turning. His ears swiveled from Eni to the Visitor and back again, and when he spoke his voice had a note of uncertainty to it. "Eni?" he asked, "What's happening?"

"Stay out of matters that don't concern you, kitten," the Visitor replied, her voice mellow and pleasant, and although she didn't gesture Eni felt an incredible force pass by her as Aza's eyes suddenly rolled up into his head and he collapsed to the floor.

Eni cried his name, nearly tripping as she bent down and scooped his body into her lap. For a horrifying moment she was utterly sure that the Visitor had murdered him; Aza was completely still. Trickles of blood ran from the young tiger's nose and ears, sticky and shockingly red as it dribbled onto Eni's paws, but she could feel his heart beating feebly in his chest. "You didn't have to do that," Eni said, looking up at the Visitor's merciless face, but she shook her head.

"The babble of lesser beings is nothing," the Visitor said, and it made Eni's skin crawl to hear such contempt in her own voice, "I am speaking to you."

She motioned distastefully at Aza's limp form before continuing. "The All-King is less than he was, but perhaps also more," the Visitor mused, "As for you, little leveret, your role is yet to be decided."

"If all you want is Tin, why… Why endanger the Circle?" Eni asked, and her counterpart blinked.

"It’s poor manners to ask a question you already know the answer to," the Visitor replied, all the warmth gone from her voice, and her expression was cold and hard as she considered Eni.

The temperature in the room seemed to drop, and Eni could feel an awful chill running up her spine as the being's awful gaze held her pinned. "You don't care about anyone else," Eni whispered, the terrible truth dawning on her, "Aza… A city… None of it matters to you."

For a long moment neither of them spoke, the Visitor's eyes boring through Eni's until she could at last take no more and looked down at Aza. The strange leather of his cloak was cool to the touch, pliable and with a slightly oily feeling to it that Eni didn't care for, but it was infinitely better than looking at her double. 

"You may think me selfish, but have you ever cursed Raenir for his egotism?" the Visitor asked abruptly, and Eni felt her gaze drawn back to the terrible creature, "Casting aside the blessings of a mother for all mammals so he could carve out his own petty reign, regardless of the paradise I had made for those who nestled against my bosom. He was warned, of course, but he was far too full of righteous pride to listen."

She cupped one of her swollen breasts in her paw, gently squeezing the nipple until pearlescent white droplets appeared. "You need not pay for his arrogance," the Visitor continued, her voice barely more than a whisper, "Do you not thirst for the truths this world was built upon? Come to me, child, and let me show you knowledge beyond the dreams of any chronicler."

"You— You're not the Mother," Eni replied, but her tongue felt thick and heavy, "And you're not a god."

The scent of the Visitor's milk filled the air, creamy and sweet, and Eni could feel the power it represented. A single drop was more than she had ever known, more than any library had ever contained, and her limbs felt weak as the scope of the Visitor seared itself into her mind.

The strange being's lips curved into a gentle and yet terrible smile, her paw dropping down to the gravid swell of her belly. "Perhaps you should consider what I am expecting to bring into this world," she said, languidly uncrossing her legs and sitting upright.

There was a glistening wetness dripping down the throne Eni hadn't noticed before, something clear and faintly saccharine that matted the fur of the Visitor's thighs. Eni swallowed hard, looking down at Aza's face. He hadn't stirred whatsoever, his body far too light against her lap. "The ichor…" Eni said slowly, horror dawning on her as the pieces began to fit together in her mind, "That's why you're here, isn't it? You… Your monsters infected him with it. That's what I felt."

The Visitor didn't appear either pleased or disappointed, her gaze mild as she waited for Eni to continue. "And…" Eni said, the pit of her stomach suddenly clenching, "This isn't a cloak."

She put her paws against the bizarre leather covering Aza and pulled as hard as she could. There was a moment of resistance before it suddenly gave way, splitting apart into a seething mess of cables exactly like Zathos’s limbs. Two tendrils left bloody holes in Aza's shoulders the size of coins as they slickly pulled free, the creature writhing and squealing as it was separated from the tiger.

It began wrapping itself around Eni's arms, digging for purchase, but she cried in disgust and slammed the thing into the ground over and over until at last it stopped. She panted with exertion even as she grabbed Aza's limp form and began to drag him away, but the Visitor hadn't moved from where she sat on the throne.

"Mark my presence, leveret; this is the final admonition I'll grant you and the All-King," she said, "Spare yourselves some vicious haste."

The Visitor smiled as she waved, and then—

All the wind was knocked out of Eni's lungs as something enormous and heavy collapsed on top of her and pushed her into the mud. Her nostrils flared as she wheezed for breath, struggling to get out from the warm object that had pinned her, and above her the sky looked more beautiful than it ever had. There was only the faintest hint of blue visible beneath the dusty clouds, but the color was wonderfully welcome after what she had seen in Aza's mind.

As her thoughts slowed, it suddenly occurred to her where she was and what was crushing her, and the shape against her stirred even as the air filled with shouts and cries of alarm. "He's fine," Eni gasped, "He's fine."

She was surrounded by a ring of soldiers in the uniforms of the League military, their faces hard as they pointed their weapons at her. "Just… Just…" she began, groping for a plausible lie, but before she could come up with anything Aza spoke.

"Just slipped in the mud," he said in Jarku, his voice almost imperceptibly shaky, "The only injury is to my dignity."

A few of the guards chuckled nervously, but most of them remained suspicious even as Aza pushed himself to his feet. His face was completely covered with sticky muck, which he brushed roughly aside with his paws as he blinked gobs of it away. "I really must be more careful," he began almost casually, "I wouldn't…"

He trailed off, his eyes going wide with wonder as they met Eni's and held them, their color as bright and vivid as she remembered them being. "I can see you," he whispered, awe coming over his face as his head tilted back and he looked around, "I can see!"

Signa and Marsenn gaped at him in open surprise, while Zathos watched with its usual detached air and Tin seemed merely mildly interested. "Praise Roren," Signa whispered thickly, her voice cracking as tears appeared in her own eyes, and the League soldiers stepped reverentially back.

"No," Aza said, placing his paws together and bowing his head, "Praise Eni."

The soldiers followed their archduke's lead, and for a moment all the activity around the castle's grounds seemed to stop. For an instant, all eyes were on Eni, filled with wonder, and her heart raced as she wilted under the force of what she saw. Hope so raw it hurt cut at her, and she swallowed hard, trying to find the perfect words to say. Her mouth opened and closed, and then Tin spared her.

"Need to go," he said bluntly, grabbing Eni's paw, and he gestured at Marsenn and Aza.

With a start, the queen began leading the way again, and although all the mammals they passed kept their distance Eni could still feel their collective gaze upon them. "I can't thank you enough, Eni," Aza managed at last, "But how…"

"I… I just tried," she managed, but her mind was racing back to what she had seen of the Visitor.

"You need to watch out for the ichor from those monsters," she blurted, trying to keep her thoughts in order, "It was… growing inside you. That's what made you blind until I killed it."

Aza's expression turned to a revulsion mirrored by Signa and Marsenn. "What about our other soldiers?" the queen asked, "Anyone who got their ichor in them…"

"Don't take them into battle," Tin said simply, "What he saw… The colors and shapes… Must be the same things those beasts feel. She's drawing them to her. Your soldiers might see a pattern they can't resist. A sound they can't deny. Walk right to their deaths."

Eni shuddered at the idea, the image of moths flying too close to a fire and being set ablaze flashing vividly through her mind. "I've… I can smell her," Tin continued, "Have since Idrun. Getting stronger."

He looked at Eni grimly. "You'll hear her soon," he said, and she laughed shakily.

"I already have," Eni replied, and although she saw concern cross his face he didn't ask any questions.

She was sure the others were intensely curious, but Marsenn stayed silent and set a rapid pace as she led them to the Augeas. It was a low and graceful outbuilding far away from the hospital tents, the grass still intact around it. Huge doors set into one side of it were wide open, revealing a well-kept smithy and a number of plush living areas. As they approached, an enormous roan stallion cantered up to them, respectfully dipping his head to the queen.

She made her introductions as quickly as possible, not hesitating for a moment as she called Tin the Slayer. Eni was sure that the horse would laugh or otherwise express his disbelief, but before he could say anything Tin spoke. He said something in Shurd, the equine language sounding bizarre coming from the mouth of a wolf, but the stallion kicked one hoof against the ground and bowed his neck lower than he had to the queen before answering in kind.

"I'll get you to Vornstrom myself," the stallion continued, switching to Circi, "And two others?"

He flipped his flowing mane back as he turned to consider Eni and Zathos. "Conserve your resources," the monster replied bluntly, "I do not require transportation."

"I will meet you in the citadel, Archivist," Zathos continued, turning to Eni, and it removed its improvised poncho and gave it to her.

The stallion uttered something that could only be a curse as Zathos unfolded its wings and pushed itself into the sky, its body only vaguely mammalian. "What kind of mammal is she?" Signa muttered in Jarku, and Eni answered as briefly as she could.

"Mostly… bat," she lied, and the polar bear shook her vast head.

The stallion took a moment to regain his composure before he hurried off into the Augeas, the sound of his hooves striking the flagstones echoing as he called out in Shurd. "We'll be on your heels," Aza promised as the horse trotted back with a mare by his side, "It'll take some time to assemble my barghests and riders, but we'll be there."

"My regiment will be only a moment behind," Marsenn added, "We'll have messengers prepare the city's defenses for your arrival."

"Good," Tin said brusquely, and he leaped onto the stallion's back as easily as if he were stepping over a curb.

Eni stared up at the mare; Eni had never ridden a horse before. More than that, she wasn’t worthy of it, but then the mare spoke. “On your knee, hare,” she said gravely, her face stern as she regarded Eni, “Have you come to accept the creed of knighthood.”

Eni’s legs almost buckled as she lowered herself as humbly as she could, her mouth dry and her voice a faint whisper as she spoke. “Yes, my lady,” she said, the words she knew from countless stories upon her tongue. 

“Name yourself,” the mare intoned solemnly.

“Eni, of the isle of Siverets.”

She could feel all eyes upon her, the Augeas completely silent as those present watched the ritual unfold. “Do you keep the Mother in your mind and your bosom?” the mare asked.

“I do.”

“Will you swear to defend her cherished children?”

“I shall.”

“Do you take this oath on pain of annihilation in the maw of the Great Eater?” the mare asked, her voice ringing, and Eni had to swallow before she could answer.

“I swear it.”

“Then honor compels you to be my rider. Arise, Dame Eni of the isle of Siverets, in the name of the Womb of the Worlds,” the mare said, taking a solemn step forward and bowing her head.

She was somewhat smaller than her companion but still quite high, and Eni’s fingers trembled slightly as she carefully clambered onto the mare’s back, trying not to poke or pull. The horse was patient, showing no reaction as Eni settled herself as comfortably as she could. 

Aza walked to her side, taking her paw in his and regarding her pensively. "I still don't remember what happened," Aza said quietly, breaking the silence, "But there was something about New Rushaya, I think."

He smiled, and it lit up his entire face. "You'll have to visit once you and the Slayer defeat this mastermind behind the monsters. My personal guest of honor, of course."

"Of course," Eni agreed, returning his grin, and he firmly shook her paw.

“Roren guide you, Dame Eni,” he said.

"And you!" she called, her horse already beginning to trot away.

There was a wide and smoothly curving ramp before them that led to the Sovereign Highway's elevated entrance, and both horses cantered up the slope with no more difficulty than if it had been level ground. They began picking up speed, side by side, as the ramp leveled out and fed into the drawbridge that connected Tormurghast to the quickest road to Vornstrom.

The cost in mammalian lives that Aza and Marsenn had paid was grimly obvious as their mounts hurried past; dark brown stains discolored a significant amount of the masonry, and there were fresh chips and gouges in the stonework. The horses thundered over the bridge, beginning to hit their stride as the smooth curve of the highway stretched before them, the plains falling away sharply as Umrin's Gorge yawned beneath them. The canyon was deep, its rocky sides covered in scrubs, but Eni kept her eyes forward and didn't dare look down or back.

She was bouncing, trying to settle herself to sit as gracefully as Tin, when he spoke to her as they left the city limits. "Were you trying to heal his eyes?" he asked, his voice so low it was barely audible over the hooves of their steeds.

"Not on purpose, no," Eni admitted, "I just… I had a feeling there was something in him."

"Would you have tried without that feeling?" he asked, and Eni fell silent a moment as she considered the question.

"I… I think I would," she said slowly, and he nodded absently.

“You weren’t afraid,” he said.

“Hopeful,” Eni said, and he lapsed back into his own thoughts as their horses rapidly ate up the miles between them and Vornstrom.

"Tell me what She did," he said at last, and as the road stretched out before them Eni took a deep breath and then began to speak.












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