The drive to the Southern Gate was silent. Sedgewick had insisted that Taz and Kanady and I all ride in separate vehicles. He sat beside me on the right, with Meritha in the front driver’s seat. Operr and a young Vigilant named Magnis rode in the vehicle behind us, with Kanady, while Dalis and Acher (who carried an even bigger sword than Sedgewick) rode ahead with Taz. Two more vehicles were filled with Zoemantic Vigilants, their trunks packed with supplies, the Vigilants themselves weighed down with swords, pistols, rifles, daggers, and a few weapons I didn’t recognize.
Eight Zoemantic Vigilants. Five Necromantic Vigilants, plus Meritha.
Not quite even odds, though Meritha must have believed we had an edge. She had raised a contemptuous eyebrow at First Vigilant Armeia in the driveway, head going up and down as she surveyed the other woman.
Armeia’s eyes had narrowed behind her gaudy pink mask. A quick gruff nod, and she had spun on her heel and climbed into her own vehicle.
And I had been right. The convoy had attracted the attention of our neighbors. They stood in clumps on front porches and sidewalks, many still in their pajamas. Some of the children had jumped up and down, thinking it was a parade. The adults had looked annoyed or irritated or, in a few cases, frightened.
The only person who had waved and saluted had been elderly Grandparent Salvathor, three houses down. It had been their wife whose higher soul I had exorcised the previous winter. They had waved and pressed a hand to their chest, seeming to understand the seriousness and solemnity of what was happening.
But no one else.
That’s why people have drifted away from us.
And how would they react when they learned the truth? When that hidden knowledge, that shame they — we — had been harboring for eighty years, was brought out into the light? How would they react then?
Would they turn on the zoemancers, too? Would the people turn on the High Holy Orders en masse? Would they abandon Egleia, or tear it down —
— or continue on in denial, turn their backs on the truth, and pretend? Pretend that nothing was wrong while the shame festered?
What would become of Egleia then?
I loved my city. I loved its people.
I wouldn’t let it die. I wouldn’t allow that. Not through my own inaction, not through the violent machinations of others, and not through the complacency and apathy of the citizens themselves.
We turned left onto the South Road. There were a few other vehicles, but only in the residential district, and they were all heading north into the city center.
As soon as we left the houses and apartments behind, the first warning sign appeared.
No Exit Through Southern Gate
More signs rose up when we reached the apiaries and orchards, some with flashing lights attached to small solar panels. The warning on one sign was obscured by Petties Go Home! scrawled in paint across its surface, while a second was covered in an angry Egleia for Egleians!
I winced, and wondered how long the graffiti had been there.
“Right,” Meritha muttered. “Paint your xenophobic screed on the signs where people are least likely to see it. ‘Cause that makes sense.”
Sedgewick snorted behind his mask.
The first road blocks appeared as we entered the parklands, thick barriers of concrete and steel with reflective tape and flashing lights. They blocked one side of the road, then the other, forcing us to slow down and swerve back and forth. Signs attached to each barrier warned No Exit! and Official Use Only! and Exit With Official Grant of Passage Only!
Off to the left, through my window, I could just make out the ugly shelters that had been built for the refugees. The frozen ground was a smear of brown and white beyond the trees; and then the ramshackle structures constructed of whatever debris the Petralans could find; and the walled compound.
I wiped condensation off the window.
From this distance, I couldn’t see the compound clearly. But there was still smoke rising slowly, thick and dark. Maybe the authorities would try to wait out the refugees. But it was more likely that they would storm the compound, causing more pain and death while following orders meant to cover up previous pain and death.
My fingernails scraped the glass as I dragged my hand down, slowly closing it into a fist in my lap.
I would save Egleia.
I glanced over at Sedgewick, his attention moving from one window to another, studying anything and everything outside.
We would save Egleia.
My phone pinged, and I dug it out of my pocket.
A message from Kanady popped up.
I feel all heroic. I really want to sing ‘The Ballad of the Crossroads’ from The Four Paladins right now.
My lips twitched. Before I could respond, Taz typed back, You can’t sing. Please, spare your Vigilants.
Obviously, you’re confused.
“Head’s up,” Meritha said from the front seat.
I tucked the phone back into my pocket, and leaned forward in my seat.
The wall was in sight now, barely the height of a grown man. There were two short platforms where a handful of border guards stood, binoculars trained on the landscape to the south and south-east and south-west. And the two massive ironwood trees that formed the Southern Gate. They loomed up towards the sky, bare branches entwined in a tangle over the road. The branches bounced slightly in the wind.
A flutter of black.
I slid forward in my seat as far as I could, stretching the safety belt as I attempted to get a look through the windshield before the branches were lost to view.
Was that a raven? Several ravens?
But the vehicle was moving too fast. The branches disappeared as the car pulled up to the Gate.
Meritha hit the brakes too hard, muttering a curse as the vehicle carrying Taz and Dalis and Acher slowed and stopped suddenly. Taillights flashed bright red.
A figure moved into view. A border guard, canine at their side. They frowned, pausing to speak with Acher through the window of the front vehicle. Frown deepening, they moved towards our vehicle as five more border guards appeared. More guns, more swords and knives.
I pressed my face to the window, squinting to see the Gate and the bottom of the tree trunks.
The Southern Gate wasn’t just a gate anymore; not like what we had passed through on the North Road. No. This was a barred and locked door, metal and wood and rubber, criss-crossed with ironwood beams and topped with a searingly bright ward: four crystal circles, hollow, stacked one inside the other; red on the outside, then green, then blue, then black. In the very center had been suspended an unhatched ironwood seed — rare, fragile, and so precious — protective spikes angling out from its creamy white surface.
It hurt to look at the ward. It felt like needles were being driven into my eyes. Even my skin felt prickly. I heard Sedgewick suck in his breath.
I turned my attention to the trees. At their base, the ironwood trees were almost as wide around as the coven house. Their roots were so thick, bumping above the surface of the ground, that the wall had been built (and rebuilt) up and over the roots to connect with the trunks. While the branches of ironwood trees were twisty and kinky, the bark was usually smooth, not unlike aspen or birch.
I could see pits.
Pits and knots on the surface of the ironwood trees.
The guard moved to Meritha’s window, partially blocking my view.
She offered them her best professional smile and rolled down the glass.
“Mornin’,” she drawled. “Think it’ll warm up later?”
The guard’s nose twitched. “We received word that several necromancers would be traveling south with their protective detail.”
Another big professional smile. “That’s us.”
A pause from the guard. The dog flicked an ear. The other border officers spread out, off the road, forming a loose circle around the convoy. An officer on one of the platforms lowered her binoculars and turned around to watch us.
I felt Sedgewick shift closer on the seat beside me, his hand resting lightly on one pistol. His other hand came around to softly unclick my safety belt — as if he was getting ready to shove me to the floor.
The guard tilted their chin. “You have your grant of passage?”
“Right here.” Meritha hoisted the scroll.
The guard carefully unrolled it, studying it for a long, quiet minute. They glanced back up at our vehicle, then at those in front and behind. A quick nod, and they handed the scroll back to Meritha.
“Passage through the Southern Gate of Egleia is granted.” They turned away for a quick moment, raising an arm in signal. Four of the border guards who had moved off the road stepped back onto the asphalt again. In a neat line, they moved to the barred and warded gate and pressed their hands to the criss-crossing ironwood beams. A moment later, the prickly sensation on my skin eased. A narrow door in the gate, just barely wide enough for a vehicle, began to slowly swing inward.
The border guard placed a hand on the doorframe, preventing Meritha from rolling up the window.
She kept smiling.
“A word of caution.” The guard twitched their head towards the opening gate. “We’ll keep watch, but once you are out of our visual range, you are on your own. You’ll lose phone service a day out, probably less. If you do get into trouble, even if you manage to call, we won’t come for you. The grass tortoises won’t be a problem, but we’ve gotten reports from Rangers of roqs, swarms of qrows, and even wild unitaurs and sprites. It’s not ….” Another pause, another twitch of their nose. “It’s not rewilding the way it should.”
Meritha stopped smiling. “Understood. I appreciate the warning.”
The guard moved back.
“Meritha, wait,” I said, and hastily rolled down my own window. I squinted at the officer’s name badge. “Officer Derys, if I might ask, have there been any other official grants of passage in the last year or so?”
Ahead, the vehicle carrying Taz started forward, then stopped just as quickly. Waiting.
The guard’s jaw tightened. Derys visibly forced the muscles to relax. “Two, ma’am. One this past spring, and a second just a couple of weeks ago. It’s possible that you will meet up with those parties at some point.”
I felt a chill creep over my skin. “Oh?”
“Yes, ma’am. Neither has returned.”
“I … see. One more question, Officer Derys. How long have the ironwood trees looked like that?”
Derys tucked their hands behind their back and cleared their throat. The dog woofed softly, circling their legs. “I have been at this post for eight years, ma’am. And it has been at least that long. And it’s grown more — noticeable.”
I bit the inside of my lip. “Have you told anyone?”
“… Yes, ma’am. Several times. I was ordered to not speak of it again.”
I crossed my arms, leaning on the sill. I felt Sedgewick grab my jacket with one hand, holding me in place. “Who gave you that order, Officer Derys?”
“The order came from First Officer Kantith of the Border Guards, ma’am. Beyond that, I couldn’t say. Or speculate.”
Nodding slowly, I leaned back in my seat. “Thank you, Officer Derys. Stay safe.”
“Yes, ma’am.” They took another step back.
I rolled up my window and nodded to Meritha in the rearview mirror. She toggled the vehicle into gear and we moved forward. The ward skidded across my skin, scratching and dragging like a cat’s claws. I grimaced at the sensation, so different from the feeling of wholeness and welcoming and healing that I had experienced when we returned through the Northern Gate.
Beside me, Sedgewick grunted and sat up straighter in his seat. I could see his jaw flex through his face mask.
I rested a hand on his leg. “Okay?”
He nodded, head still moving as he looked out first one window than another. “That was extremely unpleasant.”
“Barely felt it.” Meritha tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “Lucky me.”
One by one by one, we passed through the metal and wood and ironwood gate. As the last vehicle, carrying four of the Zoemantic Vigilants, exited the gate, I turned around. I watched the heavy door swing shut, slowly. I could hear the clang and feel the prickles as the ward was fully restored.
Worse, though, was the sight of the ironwood trees.
On this side of the wall, facing the ruined city and ruined land to the south, the trunks were creased and pitted and streaked with an ashy grey. It came up through the roots, climbing the trunks. Up and up and up, creeping, crawling, a horrible, dull color that seemed to eat the sunlight.
[End Part Eighteen. Part Nineteen appears in the May 2022 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]