[Previously: Alys duMar is a necromancer in the city of Egleia. The night after her coven’s home is attacked, they are called to the scene of a murder. But there is something very, very wrong the bones, and Alys collapses.]
Bright. Trees. Moving. Sirens. Warm. Dark again.
Warm. A hand cradled my head, stroked through my hair.
I squeezed my eyes against the light and scrunched down, pulling my legs tighter against my chest. My lower back twinged. A blanket. There was a blanket over me, and my cheek rested against something hard.
“Mmm.” I tucked my chin down, trying to get my head under the blanket, away from the bright light and the loud sirens.
“Come on. Open your eyes for me.”
I knew that voice. I liked that voice. He wasn’t really annoying. He just needed to think that I thought he was annoying. That was important for some reason.
Was it important?
Fingers stroked through my hair again, and I sighed.
Another voice. “We’re coming up on the North Gate, sir.”
“Don’t slow down.”
“We might not have a choice, sir.”
Bounce. Swerve. Bounce.
I grunted, cracking open one eyelid. I was staring across the backseat. Light glared through the tinted windows, bare trees a blur against the sky.
The car swerved again, and I felt it slow down. The trees were clearer now.
I lifted my head. The fingers that were stroking my hair curled and cupped my skull.
Okay. I was …. Oh. I was sitting in Sedgewick’s lap. The hard something against my cheek was his armor. There was a blanket draped around me, and it was warmer than it should have been.
“Are you heating the blanket?” I frowned down at the fabric, running a clumsy finger along the inside.
Everything felt sluggish, disconnected, hazy, echoey. I was … hungry? No, that wasn’t the right word. Empty? Off-balance? Lopsided?
Ill-humored, Mykal would have said. Yes, that was it. From the old idea of the elements as bodily humors. Everything inside me — everything that made up me — felt jumbled around and off-kilter.
Sedgewick said something about the blanket, but it was difficult to focus.
Touching the bones had done this to me.
I shuddered. Sedgewick’s arm tightened around me and he pulled my head back down against his chest. The blanket got warmer.
Those burned, cracked, hollowed out bones. They had been desperate and starving, and had very nearly consumed me in their craze to be whole again.
“Sorry, sir, this is going to be a bit tricky.”
I twisted my head, blinking rapidly. Operr was in the driver’s seat, his jaw tight. Through the windshield, I could make out the North Gate and the vehicles lined up to enter the city; even the emergency lane was crowded, vehicles at weird angles. It was all fuzzy. Operr pulled as far to the right as he could; small branches thwacked against the side of the vehicle, and dirt and dried grass spat out from beneath the wheels. We came to a halt, two small cars and a large cargo carrier blocking our path.
The ironwood trees of the North Gate loomed over us.
A border guard, canine leashed at her side, appeared from among the vehicles. Operr rolled down the driver’s side window as she approached. The low whine of car batteries and the high pitch of sirens and the rumble of angry voices spilled inside, and I flinched.
“Necromantic Guild,” Operr said. “We need to get through.”
The guard shook her head, expression grim. “I’ll do my best, Vigilant, but it’ll be slow going for a ways. The road ahead is down to one lane.”
I leaned forward, away from Sedgewick. His hand dropped to the back of my neck. I had to grab the shoulder of Operr’s seat for balance, peering around him at the guard. “What happened? What’s going on?”
The guard’s eyes widened and she took half a step back. “Ma’am, do you need a hospital?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said automatically. My gaze darted down. I could just make out the name sewn into her uniform; we might be very distant cousins, our families both hailing from the western coast. “Officer duMaryam. I’m Necromancer duMar. Tell me what happened, please?”
Her eyes widened further, then softened slightly. She licked her lips, gaze dancing between Operr, Sedgewick, and me. She glanced quickly over her shoulder, back towards the North Gate, then leaned closer to the window. She dropped her voice and I had to strain to hear.
“There’s been another bombing,” duMaryam said. There was only the faintest tremor to her words. “About a quarter mile inside the Gate. A public transport carrying merchants and pilgrims home from Charith. We don’t know —” she cleared her throat “— we don’t know how many dead yet. Could you —”
“No.” Sedgewick’s tone was flat and final. He gently pulled me back against his chest, leaning forward just enough that he could see Officer duMaryam. “Please move these vehicles from our path.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
She hastily moved away from our vehicle, Operr rolling up the window in her wake. The sounds of engines, sirens, and yelling dulled. I watched duMaryam move from one vehicle to the next, hand waving, pointing, dog still at her side. One car reluctantly shifted forward and back, forward and back until it sat up against the tree line on the right side of the road. The driver leaned out the window to glare at us.
The big cargo carrier was another matter. Officer duMaryam disappeared, then returned a minute later with two of her fellow officers. With gestures and ancient words and sheer willpower, they pulled dirt from beneath the trees, across the pavement, mixing it with water, creating a slick pool of mud beneath the carrier. Then they called wind, pushing the air against the side of the huge vehicle. Inch by inch, it slid towards the edge of the road. When they stopped, there was just barely enough room for our car to slip between the carrier and the vehicles stalled in the next lane.
I had a clear view now. Just passed the gridlock, I could see the column of black smoke, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, and the burned wreck that had once been a bus filled with people.
My stomach clenched in dread.
Gritting his teeth, Operr carefully maneuvered between the cars, curving and twisting until we finally passed beneath the great ironwood trees and were once again within the walls of Egleia. There was no warm tingle this time. For a moment, I felt like I was drowning and burning and flying and being buried alive all at once. I blinked, sucking in a breath, and the sensation was gone.
But I felt … better. Not whole — far from whole — but not quite so off-kilter. Not quite so ill-humored.
I drew another breath, momentarily forgetting the bombed-out bus as I sighed in relief.
Sedgewick’s fingers massaged the back of my neck. “That was a good sound. You’re dehydrated. Feel up to drinking some water?”
I felt a rumble in his chest, almost like a chuckle. “Not like you to be so polite.”
He shifted me far enough that he could turn and reach behind the seat. As he did, I heard a loud blast of horn, maybe from the cargo carrier that had just been moved aside. Sedgewick went still around me, his gaze fixed through the rear window. More horns and then Sedgewick was yelling, “Operr! Move!”
The vehicle lurched forward, bumper slamming into a smaller car. I clutched the seat. The occupants yelled at us through the windows. Another crash, and Operr rammed us through the opening, shoving the car out of the way. Another short lurch and crash. I grit my teeth, swallowing against a rising panic. And then we were moving past the bombed-out bus, and the huddle of emergency vehicles. I could taste the burnt metal and plastic and meat on my tongue.
One, two, three … eleven … thirteen, fourteen. I lost count. Higher souls, confused and traumatized, clinging to their mortal forms. Some stood on the pavement, seemingly unaware that it was no longer solid under their feet. Others had already begun to shed their mortal shapes and circled the wreckage in an agitated swarm.
They called out to me, reached for me —
And then we were clear, the road empty ahead of us, wild parkland stretching away to either side. In the distance, I could just make out the first residential neighborhoods and, further still, the soaring towers of the central district.
Operr rammed down on the accelerator, throwing me back against Sedgewick’s chest. His arm tightened around me. There was the high-pitched buzz of multiple engines. Through the rear window I could see motorcycles — three, no four — breaking free of the gridlock, racing after us. The riders wore no helmets, no glasses to protect their eyes from the cold and wind.
The parkland was a blur: forests and meadows and streams, and a few side lots with cars, citizens outside enjoying the winter.
A rumbly whine and one of the motorcycles moved closer; close enough that I could see the driver. His face was completely without expression; he stared into the wind, straight ahead, not looking towards us once. A heavy pack bulged against his back and wide belts wrapped around his chest —
“Down!” Sedgewick shouted.
He shoved me against the floor, into the space between the seats, landing on top of me, covering me with his body.
A roar, and the vehicle lifted, back tires completely off the road. Glass shattered. I screamed. Metal warped. The car slammed back down, tires squealing, the rear end swerving for a nauseating moment before Operr managed to pull straight again.
Sedgewick lifted off me. Wind tugged at the blanket and my hair, stinging my eyes. Pieces of glass shimmered and crunched as Sedgewick climbed up onto the seat. The fabric started to smoke where he had grabbed the back headrest.
“Stay there, Alys. Don’t move.”
I blinked up at him. The air wavered around him, distorted by heat. His hair stood on end and tiny black flames flickered around his eyes.
Had he … had he absorbed the heat from the explosion?
I gaped up at him as he shouted to Operr, “No matter what happens, do not stop until you reach the Necropolis!”
Sedgewick climbed over the seat, into the back storage area. He reached over his shoulder, pulling down the mask of his uniform: solid black, with a red skull that covered his face. Black flames filled the eyeholes.
Another high-pitched buzz. I looked through the shattered side window to see a second motorcycle pulling towards us. The rider’s long hair streamed in the wind. No gloves, no jacket, face bland and pale in the cold.
Sedgewick pulled a pistol, aimed through the empty window, and fired. The loud cracks bounced around the interior of the car. I flinched and risked lifting my head. Over the rim of the window, I could see the motorcyclist. Bullets slammed into her torso, her head, her shoulder, spraying blood and bits of bone that were carried away by the wind.
She didn’t fall. She didn’t cry out. Her expression never changed.
His jaw tight, Sedgewick lowered his pistol, aiming for the motorcycle’s battery.
I quickly closed my eyes. A snap, a crack of light, and a wail that rose so high it disappeared. I opened my eyes again in time to see the motorcycle stutter and fall sideways. Vehicle and rider alike slammed into the road, tumbling and rolling.
This time, I saw the explosion. It ripped the driver apart, shattered the motorcycle, and carved a deep hole in the ground. Chunks of asphalt, gravel, and dirt flew through the air, carried by the concussive blast. Pieces of the motorcycle hit our vehicle, some arrowing through the empty windows to carve up the seats around me.
I heard Operr grunt and the car swerved. Grabbing the headrest, I pulled myself up and looked into the front seat.
Operr had one hand on the wheel. The other was pressed to the side of his head. A deep gash dribbled blood down his cheek and neck and into the collar of his uniform. He was blinking too fast, and slouching lower in the seat.
The car swerved again.
“No!” I leaned forward, awkwardly spread across the gap in the seats to grab the steering wheel. I yanked it straight. My back twinged and a jolt of numbing pain ran up the right side of my body.
I ignored Sedgewick and crammed my leg through the opening. The car started to slow down. No nonono. I shoved my way through, thumping and sprawling inelegantly over the front seat. I tightened my grip on the wheel and pushed myself up high enough to see out the front window.
We were passing the apiaries and vineyards, and the first of the outer residential neighborhoods. I caught brief glimpses of people — innocents, fellow citizens of Egleia who would be injured or killed if the remaining two motorcycles detonated.
A beautifully carved wooden sign appeared on the right side of the road, there and gone so quickly that I couldn’t read it. I only knew what it said because I had visited the site so many times as a child.
Operr’s hands dropped, limp, and he sagged against his seatbelt.
I pushed myself higher, leaning against his thigh, gritting my teeth against the pinpricks of pain that flared in my back.
The crack of Sedgewick’s pistol again. He was aiming out the shattered back window. Again, the riders ignored the bullets, coming closer and closer.
The exit appeared on our right, a sign announcing Javith Lake open summer only no overnight camping please leave all offerings at the shrine.
“Hold on!” I yelled and yanked the wheel hard.
The car spun, lifting onto two tires. The engine strained. A loud thump and Sedgewick swore viciously. The vehicle slammed back down, jerking Operr awake. He grabbed the wheel again, helping me pull the car straight.
“Get ready to stop!” I clambered onto my knees.
The car crashed through the narrow wooden gate and continued down the road, past picnic benches and shelters and small gardens. The road sloped down, the lake coming into view. Boats were tipped upside down on the shore, and the stone shrine that rose up from the center of the lake was covered in dried flowers.
Operr lifted his foot off the accelerator.
“Not yet!” I snapped.
Sedgewick was still shooting.
Another crash and another explosion, the third motorcycle tumbling and flaming.
The road ended. The car bounced up onto the ground, past the upside down boats, and straight into the water. My chest hit the steering wheel, knocking the breath from my lungs, and my head slammed against the windshield. Blood ran from my nose. Water sloshed through the windows, darkening the seats and pooling on the floor.
The engine stuttered, sparked, and cut out.
Hand pressed to my nose, I slumped back in the seat. My ears were ringing and everything was fuzzy again.
Beside me, Operr was struggling with his seatbelt. He managed to get it unhooked and fumbled with his pistol. From the back of the vehicle, I heard the grunch of the tailgate and a splash as Sedgewick climbed out. Pistol in one hand, sword in the other, he stood waiting. The air wavered around him and the ground smoked.
The fourth motorcycle roared towards us.
Fingers sticky with my own blood, I hastily rolled down the passenger window and dropped my hand into the water.
Four hundred years ago, these had been agricultural fields. Four hundred years ago, Egleia had been at war with Theleia to the west. The elemental mages of Theleia had sent rain and hail, and hijacked the tributaries of the Skiya River. They had flooded the fields and orchards, drowning hundreds of citizens who had gathered to harvest the wheat and amaranth and apples. The rains had ended and the tributaries had returned to their beds, but the newborn lake had remained. A shrine had been constructed for the dead, offerings of flowers and bread and fruit left there every Summer Solstice.
Over the centuries, necromancers had tried to coax the higher souls — the ghosts — into moving on. But they refused. They stayed. And they were still angry.
I called the dead.
And they answered.
They swarmed out of the water, rising into the air. Some were ragged streaks of light, others skeletal in form, still others fully human. They whipped across the surface of the lake, streaming around the us, across the ground. I followed their flight as they split apart, weaving left and right and higher into the sky, surrounding the motorcycle.
It passed through one of the ghosts, and the rider jerked.
Again and again and again, the swarm moving with the motorcycle, circling, pulling in tighter and tighter. The motorcyclist spasmed and twitched. The ghosts formed a thick knot, spinning round and round. The vehicle slowed, the engine whining down, and finally toppled over. The battery was rusted, the tires rotted. The driver staggered, face slack. The ghosts were a dense tangle around him. He stumbled towards us, stopped, moved a few more steps.
I could see the wide belts of explosives around his chest, and the heavy pack on his back.
Sedgewick crouched, sword raised. Black flames flickered along its length.
The driver stopped again. His clothes were thin and torn. One of the belts fell off in pieces. Then his right hand. His left arm tore free and thumped to the ground. His eyes collapsed inside his skull. The bottom of the backpack tore open, wires and electronics and bricks of explosive compound dribbling out in a shower of rust and decay.
The ghosts swirled high up into the sky. Screaming in voices that only I could hear, they tore past the car and disappeared once more beneath the surface of the lake.
I slumped against the door, trailing my hand through the cold water. I could barely feel my fingers. “Hekat,” I whispered, reverently thanking and dismissing the dead.
I felt a balloon of heat. Leaning my body all the way out the window, I looked towards the shore. With a flick of his hand and a word — “Athyn” — Sedgewick had called fire. White hot, it consumed the remains of the motorcycle, the bomb, and the driver. It all burned to ash, and then even the ash burned. Superheated air funneled up into the sky in a grey, wavy plume, and the wind carried it all away.
“Thyn,” Sedgewick whispered.
My head throbbed. My back was a knot of pain. My heart was thudding and my stomach was beginning to roil with delayed fear and panic.
Biting back a groan, I shoved the door open against the water and stepped into the lake. It came up past my knees. Leaning heavily against the disabled car, I pushed my way towards the shore and back up onto solid ground. I heard Operr sloshing along behind me. My clothes clung to my lower legs and I shivered.
I opened my mouth, about to call out to Sedgewick, when I realized that he was still crouched, his sword still raised.
Moving closer, I looked beyond him, down the road. Past the scorch marks where he had burned the fourth motorcycle, past the still-smoking wreckage of the third.
There. Another motorcycle, the rider clad all in black. A helmet hid their features, the tinted faceplate reflecting the sunlight.
For a long moment, they just sat there, one foot on the ground, watching us. Then the engine buzzed. They spun the motorcycle around and raced away.
Sedgewick turned to me. The little black flames rippling along the edges of his sword went out as he lifted the weapon to drop it into the sheath across his back. He pushed the mask off his face, his jaw tight. For a moment, flames danced over his eyes, and then those went out, too.
“Well,” I said, arms hugging my stomach, “that was exciting.”
[Continue to Part Four in the January 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]