I awoke to the sound of the car door creaking open. Warm, early afternoon sunlight spilled through windows high on the walls — too high to see in or out. There was just sky and tree branches and a corner of the upper floor of the mansion.
They could probably see the ruins of Providence from up there. An object lesson in not breaking an oath, especially if you sit in a position of public trust — because you might just take the public down with you.
Alex had stepped out of the car and was on the far side of the garage, half-hidden by the motorcycles as he dialed a phone attached to the wall.
That meant this place probably had at least two phone lines: one to the main house and one to the garage. Definitely wealthy and well-connected.
I wondered how many radios they had. Maybe even a television with an antenna powerful enough to pick up the stations in Philadelphia.
I caught a few words. Latin again, and gibberish.
I tossed the blanket aside and climbed out to stretch. I rolled my shoulders and neck. My stomach gurgled with hunger.
Alex hung up suddenly, clacking the headset with too much force. He walked quickly back to the car and popped the trunk. “Plan C.”
“No more car?”
“No more car.”
I leaned back inside to grab my bow. When I emerged, Alex tossed me a smelly, oversized coat, a ratty knit cap, and even a beaten up pair of shoes. I strung my bow across my back and slipped on the coat; it smelled even worse up close, but it was big enough to hide my weapons and disguise my true size and shape. I twisted my hair into a knot and pulled on the hat, hoping that it didn’t have bugs, or worse.
I raised my eyebrows at the shoes.
He shook his head. “Your boots are too nice for where we’re going. Keep them in my backpack. You can change before the meet.”
Alex pulled out similar garments for himself, including an old pair of boots, and a torn, dirty backpack. By the time he was done, he didn’t look like himself, either.
We left through the back door, pausing long enough in the shade of a big maple to slather our hands and faces with mud. We dodged through backyards and skirted the edges of different houses, keeping to shadows and alleys. By the time we finally emerged in Capron Park, I was seriously sweating under my layers of multiple coats and shirts and my feet hurt from the mis-sized shoes.
Despite the relative prosperity of Attleboro — or perhaps because of it, or because of the presence of the root of the World Tree — the town boasted a sizable transient population. Bigger than I had expected. Several hundred people of all ages and ethnicities wandered the make-shift tent city, yelling, bargaining, fighting, and even attending school beneath a rain tarp that had been strung up between two oak trees. The teacher wore the grey and white robes of a priestess of Athena, and she was reading aloud from a tattered copy of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics.
My students — sitting in their comfortable classroom with their nice textbooks — better not be screwing around.
“Keep your head down,” Alex said. “You’re with me. Don’t speak unless I tell you to.”
He turned his head long enough the glare at me, then looked away when someone called out, “AJ! Is that you?”
I looked up as an androgynous individual wearing the long blue coat of a dedicant of Eir came over, smiling.
Opting to play along, I ducked my head and stepped back, half-hidden behind Alex.
Correction. AJ. He had shoved his hands into his pockets. With his shoulders hunched and one foot nervously kicking at the ground, he wasn’t Alex anymore. He mumbled a “Hey, Krysa.”
“We haven’t seen you for weeks. We figured you’d headed south already.”
“Uh. No. No.”
The healer peered around Alex at me, frowning. “And who’s this? Is Ollie here, too?”
“Um. No. She left.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“This. Uh.” Alex jerked an elbow in my direction. “Kay. This is Kay.”
Krysa dipped their head, smiling again. “Welcome to Attleboro. AJ’s been here plenty of times, so he knows his way around. But, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask any of the staff. There’s a healing center over there behind the blue tarp, and there’s food over there in the green tent.”
I grunted and rolled my shoulders.
That seemed to satisfy Krysa. They waved and headed off to help a woman who had limped into view, leaning noticeably on a makeshift crutch.
Alex started walking. I hastily moved to catch up. “‘Plenty of times’?” I whispered.
He didn’t answer, instead turning his head to look at the teacher under her blue tarp. She looked up, eyes skimming across the children and adults spread out across the ground. Her gaze slid right across Alex, but there was a subtle shift in how she stood and in the lines around her eyes.
My stomach rumbled.
“Breakfast,” he said. “Then I’ll introduce you to another of my off-the-books friends.”
Breakfast was powdered eggs, flatbread, a few hard slices of salami, and some sort of nutrient-enriched juice that tasted like sour grapes.
We sat down to eat under one of the oak trees, half watching the crowd mill among the tents as the sun eased into the west. Across the space made for the transient city, just past the tree line, I could see the green-grey stone wall that surrounded the Zoo. The glass roof of the rainforest building glittered in the sunlight. Several people came over to say hello to Alex (AJ), ask him how he was doing, and where was Ollie?
His answer was always the same. A grunt and “She left.”
After the fifth person came and went, I leaned towards him and whispered, “Just how long have you and ‘Ollie’ been coming here?”
He shoveled powdered eggs into his mouth. “About six years.”
I blinked and leaned back. Well before the divorce.
Off-the-books friends. Secret safehouses. Undercover identities.
Just how much of Alex’ life had I not known about?
“AJ. It is good to see you again.”
The priestess of Athena stood in front of us, a flatbread in her hand with some kind of bean mash spread across the top. She looked between us, then plopped onto the ground, not caring about the dirt staining her robes.
Alex pointed at me. “Kay, this is Diánoia. Diánoia, meet Kay.”
“She’s not your new super secret partner, is she?” Diánoia asked, and took a bite out of her flatbread.
I choked and coughed, then guzzled the sour grape juice to clear my throat.
Diánoia grinned at me and snapped her collar. “Priestess of Athena, dear. I learn things. Part of the job description.”
“And what have you learned?”
“That Ollie and AJ work in the shadows to keep the people of our strange and dangerous world as safe as possible. That you’re wearing her shoes. And that Ollie would never leave AJ, just as he would never leave her.”
I felt my chest tighten and my face pale. Diánoia paused, taking in my reaction. She tilted her head, gaze shifting back and forth between the two of us.
“Not his new partner. So, where is she?”
“Taken,” Alex answered, voice low, followed by a quick jerk of his chin towards the wall of the Zoo. “We’re going in tonight.”
Diánoia’s lips tightened. “How can I help?”
“No matter what you hear tonight, don’t come running. Make sure everyone stays on this side of the wall.”
“Done. Anything else?”
Alex hesitated. “Let me know if you hear about anyone asking questions about us.”
The priestess tilted her head again — a very bird-like gesture. I wondered how many times she had been possessed by Athena, or if the movement was just natural for her. She studied Alex in silence for a long minute, then turned to me.
“Should I?” she asked.
“And if I am asked, should I lie?”
“That I can’t say. I don’t know what oaths you made, and what the consequences would be if you broke them.”
Alex stiffened beside me.
“Mmm. And you? What oaths have you taken?” When I hesitated, she continued, “You are obviously ambivalent about being here. So why are you?”
I opened and closed my mouth. I could stand in front of three hundred students and craft a two hour lecture on the intersection of Kantianism and anarchism off the top of my head, but now I was struggling to explain myself.
I was thinking too hard. And, despite being a priestess of Athena, she didn’t seem interested in a reasoned, philosophical argument. Dig down through the layers of anger, hurt, hatred, and love, and it was really very simple.
“My pride isn’t worth her life.”
“Mmm.” Diánoia munched her flatbread. “Very well.” She lifted gracefully to her feet. “I shall leave you to enjoy your meal and rest. Athena watch over you.”
When she was out of earshot, Alex whispered, “Thank you.”
I shrugged, embarrassment and a pathetic flicker of gratitude curling through my chest. He hadn’t moved, but he was suddenly too close. The gratitude withered and the embarrassment turned to anger, at him, but mostly at myself.
I pushed to my feet. “I’m going to take a look around. You know this place. I don’t.”
As I started away, not caring which direction I went, he called out, “Remember what I said about talking to anyone.”
I flicked a hand dismissively over my shoulder and kept walking. I wound my way through the camp, around shelters made of plywood and chainlink fence and bedsheets, around the food tent and the pair of cooking fires beside it, around Diánoia’s school tarp and Krysa’s medical tent, round and round and round. A few people waved or nodded in greeting. Others watched me from the corners of their eyes. Most ignored me.
Eventually, I made my way to the tree line on the far side of the camp. Across a short green lawn and an old asphalt parking lot stood the wall of the Zoo. It curved around in a rough circle, the green gated entrance with its little towers off to the left. From here, I could clearly see the glittering glass roof of the rainforest building, as well as the dark slates of the nocturnal building and a few bobbing umbrellas in the concession area.
There were cars in the parking lot, and buses coming and going as visitors came and went in pairs or large tour groups. A gaggle of students was immediately recognizable in their matching uniforms, as was a small cluster of dedicants to the Earth Mother In All Her Names, their forearms wrapped in blood-stained green and brown ribbons.
It all looked perfectly ordinary. Perfectly normal.
But just beyond that wall, malevolent creatures from the spaces between the Worlds were holding my ex-husband’s wife prisoner. The woman he had broken his oath to me to be with. The woman he had chosen over me.
“You never loved me as much as you love her, did you?”
Alex stepped into my peripheral vision and leaned against a tree. “No.”
His answer was solemn, sincere. No hesitation. Truth, however unintentionally cruel.
My pride may not have been worth Olivia’s life, but that still hurt. It hurt so very much.
“This is one of the things I did love about you, admired about you. Still do.” He waved his hand vaguely, encompassing us and the camp and the Zoo, the whole mad situation. “You always do the right thing.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Ellie would argue that the right thingwould be to do everything in our power to keep this saw away from the kallikantzaroi.”
“We are. We will. It’s a good plan.”
“It’s a terrible plan,” I muttered.
He laughed suddenly, a low chuckle that took me by surprise. It eased the lines around his mouth and lightened his eyes.
“You haven’t changed.”
“Excuse me?” I spluttered.
“Not essentially. Oh, sure, you’re angrier now. Understandable, after what I did.” His smile fell away, his expression growing solemn again. “But you’re still Ki — ” He caught himself, shook his head. “You still worry too much, care too much, and keep right on going, forging ahead no matter what, because you are incapable of doing less.” He shifted on his feet, shrugging his backpack into a different position. “I’m glad that I didn’t … break that, about you. You’re students are lucky to have you. So is Ellen.”
I huffed and looked away, pretending to study the walls of the Zoo again, trying to go over the layout in my head.
“That’s why you never signed on, like me, despite all the offers. I heard through the grapevine that the FBI came knocking on your door — again — after I left. And you turned them down, again.”
I shrugged. “I like being able to choose who I’ll help and when and why, not be assigned cases and told to go somewhere and do something without any explanation.” It had always been that way. Family tradition. Five times great-grandmother Kathryn would be proud, hopefully.
He didn’t respond, just stood with me in the lengthening darkness.
A single pair of lights flickered on above the towered entrance to the Zoo. The last bus pulled out of the parking lot.
A branch broke behind us and Diánoia cleared her throat. “I think it best if the two of you depart now. I just left Krysa outside the medical tent, speaking to a very authoritative, very stern, very suspicious looking individual.”
I glanced at Alex. “Should I be grateful that your colleagues are so competent, or worried?”
His only answer was a grunt and a shake of his head.
“If I might,” Diánoia interjected, “you’ll have a better chance of sneaking into the Zoo if you head around to the far side. There’s a maintenance shed right next to the lemurs’ lake. We’ve, well, caught some of our friends hiding there on particularly cold nights.”
“Thank you, Diánoia,” Alex said.
She dipped her head, first to Alex, then to me. “Athena watch over you.” Then she turned and made her way back through the trees and the jumble of tents.
Alex looked at me, his gaze steady. I remembered how he had appeared in my classroom just yesterday: shaky, desperate, exhausted. Now he looked determined, certain. Heroic.
Rolling my shoulder to adjust my bow under the stinky coat, I left the shadows of the trees and stepped out into the night.
[End Part III. Read Part IV of At the Root of the Worlds.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.