Meritha hauled us through the ruins of the camp, hands cuffed behind our backs, the two Necromantic Vigilants close on our heels. The closer we got to the front gate, the worse the damage. The few solid buildings that were not on fire had collapsed, pulled down by law enforcement officers on horseback or knocked over by waves of panicked refugees. Empty gas canisters rolled across the ground, catching in the remains of tents or against inert bodies.
Ghosts. There were so many ghosts.
A few were old, roused by the chaos and anger and fear of the raid; they had either been invisible before or I hadn’t noticed them in my mad dash with Sedgewick to find Othinith. But most of the ghosts were brand new; freshly, traumatically dead; higher souls lost and confused. They still looked like their physical bodies, walking or floating in circles or rocking back and forth or waving frantically, yelling with soundless voices.
One, two, three … twelve … eighteen … nineteen ….
We passed nineteen dead on our way to the gate.
I licked my lips. They were chapped now from the cold. “Merith — ”
“Shut up,” she snapped. She walked ahead of me, her shoulders and back stiff. Behind me, I could hear the clomp of the two Necromantic Vigilants. “And it’s Officer Javes.”
More bangs, and a low whomp. I caught a whiff of gas.
“Yes, I — of course.”
A shape flickered in the corner of my eye. I stumbled to a halt.
I knew that ghost. I recognized the higher soul. Inirin, the woman who had told Othinith that the hospital had been destroyed. Even in spirit form she was still hugging her broken arm against her chest. She looked around, her eyes too big, unaware that her own body lay stiff and still at her feet.
The blunt handle of a knife rammed into the right side of my back. I hissed, my vision tunneling as I almost fell to my knees.
“Hey!” I heard Meritha yell.
There were scrambling sounds, and ice cracking beneath boots, and loud grunts.
“Back off!” Meritha yelled again. She shoved past me, pushing me forward and out of the way. I slid and tripped across the frozen, uneven ground, turning just in time to see Sedgewick — hands still cuffed behind his back — knee one of the Vigilants in the stomach, then swipe his feet, sending the Vigilant face-first into a patch of icy mud.
The other Vigilant yelled and lunged at Sedgewick, knife extended; the blade was already sticky with dark blood. Sedgewick leaned and twisted to the side, the blade tearing through his ratty shirt and the bodysuit beneath to slice across his chest.
Othinith. She came up behind the Vigilant and slammed a rock against the back of his head. He crumpled, sprawling across the ground.
“Oh for — ” Meritha glared at her. “Not helping.” She turned her glare on Sedgewick. “Don’t kick too hard.”
His foot lashed out, catching her square in the chest. She oomphed, breath whooshing from her body as she flew backward, stumbling, tripping, finally falling. And lay still.
I gaped. “What — why — why did you do that?!”
Othinith dashed over to the (unconscious?) Meritha, digging around inside pockets until she emerged with a bundle of keys. She ran back to Sedgewick, her good eye squinting as she flipped through them. She must have found the right one, because, a moment later, Sedgewick tossed aside the loose handcuffs.
My gaze jumped back and forth between him and Meritha and the higher soul of Inirin. The ghost had stopped looking around and was now watching us. There was a terrible desperation in her eyes.
Sedgewick unclicked my handcuffs. His voice was low, barely audible above the bangs and crashes and shouting. “We have no idea who’s watching, and what they might report. We’re Petral refugees caught up in the raid. When we saw the chance to escape, we took it.”
I dragged my attention away from the ghost to focus on what he was saying.
Right. Of course.
Meritha hadn’t moved. I had no idea if she was really unconscious or just pretending.
Sedgewick curled his fingers around my wrist. “Out the gate. We’ll blend in, make our way out of the camp. Find someplace to hide out, and text Meritha to pick us up when it’s safe.”
The ghost was still watching us.
“I can’t stay to help any of them, can I?” My voice cracked. I felt a physical pain in my chest, like my heart was twisting beneath my ribs.
All these lost and confused higher souls. All this death.
This was my fault. They were dead because I came here. Because of me.
I was a necromancer. It was my duty to assist the dead, to console and help them.
Not cause death, no. Not this.
And now I was running away.
Sedgewick’s grip tightened, his fingers warm. “No. Not now. We’ll tell the Hag. Ask her to send necromancers to aid the dead.”
I nodded. My mother would listen. She wouldn’t allow these higher souls to suffer.
“Othinith, please extend my condolences to Inirin’s family.”
She blinked at me, paling, and her head jerked back. The scar over her eye pulled tight. “What?” she whispered.
Then she spun away, her gaze raking the ground and the jumbles of tents. I knew when she spied Inirin’s body, because her hands curled tight and her entire body went ridged.
When Othinith spoke again, her voice was hoarse and gravelly. “You already met them. I’m sure it will mean a lot to Eregrin that you’re sorry that her daughter is dead, to Lal Rithin that his granddaughter is dead. Now will you please leave.”
Sedgewick tugged and spun me around. I followed him blindly, joining a swarm of refugees running out the broken gate. Past a panicked, riderless horse. Past the semicircle of official vehicles. One was tipped over. One was burning. Through the sprawl and congestion of the overflow camp, and the trampled field, and the stumps of trees, and into the cold, bright afternoon.
We walked. We stayed off the road. Once we reached the far edge of the camp, we just started walking. The gouged, frozen field of mud gave way to dry, brown grass, and then slowly to trees again. If we kept walking, the wild trees would eventually give way to the cultivated orchards and apiaries.
In the distance — too far to walk — gleamed the towers of the downtown district. In the very center, I could just barely make out the Southern Temple of Isiya, framed from behind by the glimmering rainbow of the Great Pyramid.
“There’s no dragon here.”
At some point during our escape, Sedgewick had pulled off his shirt and draped it over my shoulders. It was warm. So was his arm, wrapped around my back. He kept the cold at bay, but not the grief and anger of my thoughts.
I felt him glance down at me. “No dragon under Egleia?”
Stepping over a twist of tree roots, I nodded. The scarf slipped and slid around my ears and throat. “There was no way for us to win a war against Petral. Too old, too powerful, and built atop a dragon. So they killed it. The people Lal Rithin described — the laughing zoemancer and the others — I don’t think they were the High Holy Orders of Egleia. The time it would have taken them to travel to Petral, sneak into the city, down through the Pyramid, and back again?” I shook my head. “People would have noticed they were missing. And the High Holy Order Zoemancer eighty years ago was Grandparent Markila: bald, middle-aged, and blind.”
“So, not the High Holy Orders. But agents acting in their name?”
I nodded slowly. The grief and anger made my thoughts heavy, my brain sluggish. A part of me — a small but persistent part — didn’t want to understand, to see, to reach the truth. But a louder, more determined part, pushed forward.
I owed the dead.
All of Egleia owed the dead.
“They had to be acting under the auspices of the High Holy Orders. If not, then the High Holy Orders found out what had happened very quickly thereafter. They knew about The Wheel of Unbecoming, and they had access to that book. Abaras Syl’s book.”
“A Select Analysis of Four Primal Rites and Their Relation to the Four Creators, the Four Elements, and the Four Elemental Creatures.”
“Impressive memory. Kanady will be happy. They would have recognized the signs of a dragon death. A dragon unbecoming.”
I paused at a flicker of movement, something transparent but shimmery, weaving among the bare branches.
Oh. A higher soul. Inirin. She had followed us from the camp.
“Alys? What is it?”
I stepped away from Sedgewick, my hand brushing his arm.
“It’s all right,” I assured him. “A soul is here.”
Inirin had begun to change. Her soul was abandoning its physical shape, reaching for its true form. Her face was still the same, and her hair, but her body was more bird-like now, with wide crow wings that glimmered like opals.
I was a powerful necromancer. I could perform The Rite of the Ascendancy of the Higher Soul alone, without the support of a coven. I had done so before. But I was also tired and angry and grieving. Not the best state of mind for sending a soul on to the Creators. But I owed it to Inirin, and to my oath as a necromancer, to try.
Sedgewick came up beside me, his breath ghosting across my cheek. “How can I help?”
I looked up at him, smiling in relief and gratitude. His offer was automatic; he didn’t even need to think about it. Just like when he had come to fetch me from the safe room, and he had reached down and extended his hand.
“Please stand guard.”
He nodded silently and stepped away, his gaze moving to the trees all around us. I immediately felt the lack of his heat. He began to circle slowly as I knelt, searching the ground around me for what I would need.
Inirin beat her beautiful wings. She was still changing, her human form shrinking; she was becoming more crow-like, gleaming with divine light.
Ice. Not much, but enough to melt into water just from the heat of my hand and my breath. Dirt, cold and clumpy in the puddle of my palm. A leaf, hard and crinkled, floating on the surface.
I looked around. Sedgewick had continued in his wide circle and was now in front of me. Inirin’s soul spun around his head, visible only to me. She had started to sing, but he heard only the wind and the creak of the tree branches.
“May I have the gift of your fire?”
He paused, then bowed slightly. A moment later, a handful of cold, dried blades of grass ignited by my knees. The flames were tiny, but they were more than enough. I smiled at him in thanks, carefully ripped the burning grass from the ground, and closed my eyes.
I had no blood ink to write the words on my flesh. My voice would have to do.
I began to sing. The Song of Ascendancy, given to us by the Creators. I sang in the First Tongue, the primal language with which the Creators had shaped the world. A language recognizable immediately to a higher soul.
Inirin flew closer, her opalescence so bright now that I could see it through my eyelids. I felt the brush of her feathers, the tug of her beak — she had a beak now — on my hair.
I opened my eyes.
The shimmering crow who was Inirin floated above me, her wings so wide that a dozen men extending their arms could barely cover their breadth. Each feather was perfect, whorls of pink and yellow and blue tracing the delicate vanes. Her beak was sharp, her eyes keen.
And then she spoke.
Her words were not as clear as those of Vigilant Odressa. That had been a formal summoning, performed by a coven. This was a Rite of The Ascendancy, performed by a single necromancer with less than ideal tools under less than ideal circumstances.
Daughter. Away. Gone away. South. Home. Home.
I brought my hands together. The flaming grass touched the crinkled leaf. It flashed and turned to ash. The water evaporated in a puff of steam. The dirt warmed and crumbled, the grains carried away by the wind. And then the grasses themselves burned down, down, down, until there was nothing left, and the fire, too, faded.
I blinked, and the opalescent crow was gone.
“Sinin hei, Inirin,” I whispered. Farewell.
I sagged, hugging my chest.
The grass crunched and I felt Sedgewick crouch in front of me. I immediately felt warmer. His hand curled around my shoulder and I straightened.
“Thank you,” I said.
He touched the corner of my mouth with one finger. “Always.”
His kiss this time was gentle and comforting. Not like last night (had it only been last night?) when gentle had quickly become something much more demanding. There were no expectations of more in this kiss; only a much needed promise of always.
Sedgewick pulled his head back, smiling, his hand cupping my cheek. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. I decided that I liked that, very much.
And then his phone buzzed.
Sedgewick pulled out his device and glanced at the screen. “Meritha.” He tapped out a quick message. “We’re nearing the southernmost apiary. I’ll tell her to meet us at the first market stand by the road.”
I grunted an affirmative. My feelings of comfort and support and accomplishment — I had actually done my duty as a necromancer — faded as my attention was caught by the slice on his chest. The other Vigilant’s knife had cut clean through the ragged shirt and protective bodysuit. I could see his skin beneath, and the wound, clotted with blood. It had just missed his heart.
Nineteen dead, that I knew of.
Sedgewick slipped his phone away. Then he tucked his hand to cup my chin and turn my gaze up. “It’s not serious. I’ve been hurt worse than this in sparring matches.”
“Why do I think you’re lying to comfort me?”
His mouth twitched. “Exaggerating. Slightly. It was an ironwood knife, otherwise he never would have been able to cut through the suit.” His smile disappeared, his other hand lifting to push a loose strand of hair under my scarf. “He hurt you. I am your First Vigilant and I will protect you from any threat. Even other Vigilants.”
“Will you get in trouble? With the First Marshal?”
He hesitated. “I will tell her the truth if she asks. But it’s highly unlikely that she will. And, at this point, I am hesitant to trust anyone.”
His phone buzzed again. He pulled it out, nodded, and shoved it back into his pocket. “Meritha will meet us at the market stand in an hour.”
He helped me stand, looped his arm around my waist, and we continued walking.
[End Part Fourteen. Part Fifteen will appear in the January 2022 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]