Image courtesy of Shahin Khalaji at unsplash

I was still hungry when we reached the coven house. Still tired, too, but sleep was not an option. Plans. Plans already made, discussed on the drive back from the Great Pyramid. More plans to make, to discuss with Taz and Kanady.

There was so much to do.

As I was hanging my coat on the rack, clutching Tohra’s package awkwardly under one arm, Meritha dodged around me and into the kitchen. She emerged a few moments later juggling two of the tubs of ice cream she had just purchased the previous night: chocolate rum cherry and mint cotton candy.

“Back in a few. Don’t leave without me.” She waved a hand over her shoulder, hopping through the still-open front door and down the steps. She climbed into the car, threw another wave at Operr and Dalis (who did not wave back from their positions at the bottom of the stairs), and accelerated away.

Sedgewick sighed and shook his head. “Chiya.

The ironwood popped back into place.

“Okay, so that thing, right?” Kanady dropped into the comfy chair next to the fireplace.

Taz scowled at him, flinging her own coat across the back of the couch before plopping down onto the cushions. “Is this about the oh! that almost gave me a heart attack?”

“Yes.” Kanady nodded enthusiastically. “Right. So. We were talking about Klyde’s Essays on the First Tongue and then you asked me about dragons and I had no idea how that tied into the order of creation or elemental creatures or the Wheel of Unbecoming —”

I picked up Taz’ jacket and hung it on the rack as they started to verbally spin.

“Bored!” Taz broke in.

“No, this is gonna get good, just listen.” Kanady leapt to their feet, darting around Sedgewick. They disappeared into the library, the door hanging open so their voice carried back to us in the living room. “I was thinking about Alys’ question, and then I remembered something I read in Burton’s History of the World — the first volume — and then when we got down into the Zoepolis, I was looking at the mosaics of the creation, and it all just kind of came together.”

They emerged from the library, juggling a massive volume nearly the size of their torso. The leather cover was dark with age, and the edges of the pages were rough. 

“Sort of. Almost. This is still a preliminary theory.”

Kanady wove around Sedgewick and dumped the book over the back of the couch. It landed on the cushions with a whoomp, making Taz bounce. 

She grimaced down at the book. “I don’t remember reading that in seminary.”

“We have already established that you have a terrible memory,” Kanady said, dropping back into the comfy chair. They gestured towards the History of the World Volume One. “But Burton wasn’t required. I read that for fun. Fascinating chapter on the establishment of Suxia, and another on the migration to the Northern Isles. And volume six had this really interesting —”

“Kanady,” Taz snapped.

I took the other comfy chair, the little package tucked into my lap. “Dragons,” I interrupted.

“Right. Dragons and cities. And Pyramids. So, every city has a Great Pyramid and four Temples. The designs and decorations and stuff vary, but generally employ the same motifs. Somewhere on the Temple of Khura you’ll find at least one image of a qraqon, and there will be a qrow on Isiya’s Temple —”

“And dragons for earth on Thueta’s Temple, and nephelen for air on Osira’s Temple. Bored again.”

Kanady glared at Taz. “Pay attention, this is serious.”

She huffed and pushed herself straighter on the couch. “I am taking this seriously. You’re wandering instead of getting to the point.”

“But I need to explain it!”

“You’re not explaining anything!”

“There was a dragon in Petral!”

We all stared at Kanady.

They scrubbed a hand through their hair. “There was a dragon in Petral. I think. Maybe. That’s how it makes sense.”

Sedgewick lowered himself onto the arm of my chair, his sword poking out above his shoulder. His voice was low, his jaw tight. “What do you mean?”

Kanady cleared their throat. “It’s in Burton’s History of the World. There’s a legend — a really, really old legend — that Thueta sent a dragon to assist with the construction of the first city. No, more than assist. The exact phrase is the dragon laid itself upon the earth and became one with the element of which it was made, and upon the dragon was the first city built, north to north, south to south, east to east, and west to west.”

I swallowed. “I’ve never heard that story.” 

“I have,” Taz whispered, her eyes wide. When she saw our expressions, she shrugged. “Just an old bedtime story. Something my Dad used to tell me. I think he got it from his Parent, who got from way back.” She shrugged again. “It used to help me sleep, because he would tell me there was nothing to be afraid of because there was a dragon under the city to protect me and keep away the monsters and nightmares.” Her mouth twitched. “Now I just crawl into bed with my covenmate and her fat cat.”  

A short silence. I could hear the ravens outside in the trees, chattering to one another.

Kanady leaned forward, elbows in their knees. “So, I was thinking …. Petral was an ancient city. Millennia older than Egleia. Not as old as Suxia, but older than Charith and Syris. What if — once — there were dragons under the cities? Literally. Dragons who were — maybe are — tied to the cities built over them. Dragons who are, in effect, the spirit of the cities.”

“That’s how we defeated Petral.” The words, barely a whisper, caught in my throat, and my fingers tightened around the package in my lap. “A young city. We barely won the war against Theleia four hundred years ago. What chance did we have against a city as old and powerful as Petral. So we bound a necromancer to the dragon of Petral, placed them within the Wheel and … unmade them. Element by element. The higher soul unwoven. And so the dragon was unmade, too. And the city with it. And Petral … died.”

“No.” Sedgewick’s voice was a whisper, too. “Not just died. Ceased to be entirely. Buildings collapsed. Crops failed. Water turned putrid. Fire. Plague. Within weeks there was nothing left, and those who hadn’t perished already were forced to flee.”

Taz crunched forward, bending over like she was about to be ill. Her eye were wet. “They unmade an elemental creature and perverted a Primal Rite just to win a war?”

I scrubbed the back of my hand over my mouth, swallowing against the bile I felt rising in my throat. Sedgewick’s fingers curled over my shoulder, soothing me. “No wonder Vigilant Odressa was so angry. She was right. The elders of Egleia committed a horrific offense against creation, just to settle a petty political squabble.”

“Why?” Taz asked. She was still bent over, hugging her stomach. “Why would they do that?”

I could only shake my head, unable to answer.

***

Meritha returned an hour later, a large paper bag in her hands. When she saw us, still huddled in the living room, she shoved the History of the World as far to the side as she could, and sat down next to Taz.

Her expression turned increasingly grim as Kanady related their theory.

“But it’s still just a theory. Preliminary. It answers some of our questions, but not all,” they hastened to add.

“No.” Meritha shook her head. “It’s a solid hypothesis. We’ll have to bring it up at the camp. Subtly.”

Taz leaned sideways, looking at Meritha in shock. “Wait, you really are raiding the camp? I thought that was just to throw off the Grandfather.”

“I said it, now we have to do it. It’ll look suspicious if we don’t follow through.”

“It will also be good cover.” Sedgewick glanced down at me. “The confusion will make it easier for us to slip in without being noticed.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “I still don’t like the idea of terrifying already frightened refugees.”

“It’s just for show,” Meritha said again, repeating her reassurance from earlier. She uncrinkled the lip of the brown paper bag. “Speaking of.” She pulled out a ratty pair of pants stained with dirt and grease and other things I couldn’t recognize. “Refugee attire. But, considering the Grandfather ordered all of you to stay home, we’ll need a different disguise to get you out the door.” Her grim expression morphed suddenly, a broad smile lightening her face. “Ever wanted to be a Vigilant?”

***

Dalis was extremely unhappy. She hid it well, though. When First Vigilant Sedgewick gave her an order, she obeyed — even if that meant stripping, donning a pair of my sweatpants and a hoodie, and handing over her uniform.

Taz and Kanady did not hide their displeasure. They didn’t even try. They argued with me all the way up the stairs and then through my closed bedroom door. Cha-Cha, who had been trying to nap in the square of sunlight on my pillow, shot an irritated glance at the door, turned in a circle, and shoved her head under her front leg.

Dalis and I were fairly close in stature, but she was a lot more muscular. All those hours and hours of sword practice and martial arts training. I had an old pair of black boots that approximated those worn by Necromantic Vigilants, but the full bodysuit was loose in all the wrong places and slightly too long. Trying to fit the armor pieces by myself was impossible; it was a skill the Vigilants apparently acquired over the years.

I must have been loudly expressing my own displeasure.

“Do you need help?” Taz called through the door.

“Yes!”

She pushed it open and shook her head when she saw me, bodysuit twisted uncomfortably, one shinguard and the breastplate barely attached. “That’s pathetic.”

“Whatever,” I muttered.

Kanady watched from the doorway, scowling, their arms crossed, as Taz helped me into the armor. Piece by piece, the uniform was slowly assembled until, eventually, I looked something like a Vigilant. I wouldn’t pass a close inspection. I wouldn’t even pass a partial inspection. But I just needed to get from the front door, down the steps, and into the waiting car. Once I was behind the tinted windows, the uniform could come off again.

And the refugee clothes could go on.

But everyone needed to think that I was still in the coven house. That only Sedgewick, Dalis, and Meritha had departed to take part in the raid.

Taz tugged my hair out of my face, bundled it into a bun, and pulled up the hood until it snugged around the edges of my face. “I still think this is a bad idea.”

Kanady scowled harder.

“We should all go,” Taz continued.

I shook my head. “No. You two need to get us ready for Petral.”

Kanady’s scowl disappeared, flickering into a moment of confusion, followed by determination. They nodded. “There are a few books in the library that might be useful. And we’ll need supplies.” They looked from me to Taz and back again.

“Wait a minute.” Taz moved out from behind me. “You won’t let us come along to question a few refugees, but you’re okay with us driving into a dead city full of collapsed buildings, lingering plague, and — without a doubt — a horde of very angry ghosts? Oh, and if the city really is completely dead and not rewilding like we’ve been told for years, it’s probably full of feral unitaurs and bloodthirsty sprites, too.”

“I am not okay with it, at all,” I snapped. Exhaustion was beginning to creep up on me, and hunger, and I still had so much to do. “I am very much not okay with it. But we need to keep the Grandfather convinced that we’re following his orders until we can get out of the city. (Never mind that he doesn’t have the right to give us orders.) And, as you repeatedly pointed out to me at the house meeting last night, I’ve been trying to do it all myself. Again. This is me trusting you. Relying on you. Sharing the burden with my fellow necro —” 

Taz’ hug was so tight and sudden that she cut off the flow of air from my lungs. I grunted, then grunted again when Kanady wrapped me in their arms.

There was the sound of a throat being cleared.

Sedgewick stood in the doorway. “We need to leave. The raid is about to begin.”

One last squeeze, and Taz and Kanady pulled away.

Sedgewick frowned, his gaze sliding up and down my body. “If you were a Vigilant, I would bust you back down to First Apprentice.”

I hmphed, then leaned over to the bed and picked up Tohra’s package. It was still unopened. I held it out to Kanady. “This might be useful.”

“What is it?”

“No idea, but the Hag wanted me — us — to have it.”

Kanady tore off the wrapping. The sound brought Cha-Cha leaping off the bed, who scrambled across the floor, batting at the paper. Taz lifted her feet out of the cat’s way. Kanady didn’t even notice. Their mouth fell open and their eyes went wide.

“Hunh.”

Taz poked them in the arm. “Share with the rest of the class.”

Kanady turned the book.

Old black leather, but not ancient. Pages neatly cut. The title was splashed across the cover in bright gold.

A Select Analysis of Four Primal Rites and Their Relation to the Four Creators, the Four Elements, and the Four Elemental Creatures

Beneath that lay the author’s name, just as bright.

Abaras Syl of Suxia

***

Dalis may not have verbally expressed her displeasure at having to loan me her uniform, but by the way her mouth twisted and her eyes narrowed, she certainly wanted to complain about the way I wore it.

Taz and Kanady hovered at the bottom of the stairs, while Sedgewick moved up and leaned over my shoulder. “Yes, I have already told her that I would bust her back down to First Apprentice.”

Dalis tilted her head towards him. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate that.” She turned back to me, gaze dropping and rising. “Stand up straight. Keep the hood down.”

I straightened and pulled the cloth into place, tugging the edge under the front collar of the bodysuit. “Better?”

“Marginally.”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up. On those rare occasions when Dalis had spoken to me directly, she had always been respectful; even a little stand-offish. Now she was displaying a not-so-subtle snark that I could imagine Meritha appreciating.

Yep. Meritha stood by the coatrack, pulling on her own jacket. One corner of her mouth had inched up.

“This is not a protective detail,” Dalis continued, “so First Vigilant Sedgewick will proceed you out the door. He will also sit in the front passenger seat. You will get into the vehicle after him, not before. Your steps should be firm, but don’t clomp.”

“I don’t clomp!”

“Keep your hands free and ready to engage, if necessary.” Dalis pulled out a belt that she had been hiding behind her back, a pair of daggers in the side sheaths. “Minimal weaponry to keep up appearances. Please don’t touch them.”  

I took the belt and wrapped it around my waist, clipping it shut. “Don’t trust me with sharp objects?”

“You spilled ice cream all over yourself, so, no.”

Meritha tried and failed to suppress a bark of laughter.

“Once. I did that once. Why does everyone keep on about the ice cream?”

“Time to go.” Sedgewick pulled his own hood into place. A red skull stared back at me, his eyes dark through the slits. I doubted I looked anywhere close to that intimidating.

At Meritha’s nod, Dalis stepped out of view of the front door, closer to the fireplace. Sedgewick rested his hand against the ironwood — “Achiya” — and it disappeared. One last glance back at Taz and Kanady, who offered me small smiles of encouragement, and we were out the door. My heart was thudding. Past Operr. Down the steps. Don’t clomp. Meritha walked around the vehicle to climb behind the wheel. Shoulders straight. Everyone was watching me. The whole world was watching me. Sedgewick swung open the front passenger door and joined her. I grabbed the handle and yanked open the back door. I pulled a little too hard, caught myself as I stumbled, and jumped in.

The door thunked shut.

My hands were shaking.

I dropped my head against the back of the seat. “Let’s not do that again.”

“Nope.” Meritha flicked on the engine, which came to life with a buzzy-purr. “Or yep. Have to do that again on the way back.”

I groaned. I had forgotten about that.

The car lurched forward, down the drive, and out onto the street. We were on our way.

I just hoped that someone at the refugee camp was willing to talk to me; not just about the bombings and the attempts on my life. But about the war, too, and Petral, and the murder of a dragon.

[End Part Eleven. Part Twelve will appear in the September 2021 issue of ev0ke.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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