“Your cousin Marcilia is pregnant.”
I choked on my tea and almost slid off the floor pillow.
The Hag quirked an eyebrow as I wiped liquid from my chin with my sleeve.
“That’s unfortunate,” I said. “Maybe the family will luck out and her stupidity will skip a generation.”
“Be nice, Alys.”
“I refuse to be nice to people who try to kill me.”
Behind me, I heard Sedgewick subtly shift on his feet. He had declined to sit, remaining stiffly at attention and on guard.
My mother rolled her eyes, the tiny bones in her hair clinking. “You exaggerate. She pushed you off your bicycle and then rode away.”
“She knocked me into Javith Lake and then stole my bicycle because she wouldn’t admit that she had broken hers. Matching bikes? Really?”
The Hag shrugged. “Your birthdays are only three days apart. You liked having double parties when you were children. How is the search for your fourth coming along?”
“Um.” I stuttered to a halt, my gaze sliding away.
“Alys, have you even glanced at the list of necromancers that I sent you? They are all very strong anchors: a touch of necromancy and solid elemental abilities. Any of them would make an excellent addition to your coven.”
“Yep. Sure they would. I’ve just been … um … busy. Stuff.”
The Hag narrowed her eyes at me. “A coven is four, not three. You are barely functional in your current configuration.” She took a sip from her own cup. Frowning slightly, she set it back down on the low table and added more honey. Flakes of dried blood drifted off her fingertips, dusting the table; matching streaks of blood around her throat and down the center of her chest still glimmered wet. The scrolls she had been writing on and the pot of blood ink now sat on the floor at her side. When I didn’t answer, she was apparently satisfied that I had been properly chided into obedience. “How is your tea, Investigator Javes?”
Beside me, Meritha nodded, head bobbing up and down in excessive approval. “Yummy. So, so yummy. Ma’am.”
My mother smiled. She took another sip and nodded in satisfaction. “We have met before, have we not, Inspector? This past Summer Solstice. I believe you represented the Office of Law and Enforcement at the Rite of the Ancestors.”
Meritha cleared her throat. She actually looked a bit nervous, and nothing ever made Meritha nervous.
“Yes, Ma’am. Hag. That’s correct. It was … deeply moving. It was the first Rite I attended that was conducted by the High Holy Orders.” She cleared her throat again. “I was part of Aly … uh, Necromancer duMar’s security detail to the Winter Solstice last year, but I didn’t participate in the Rite of Breath and Word.”
“Ah, that’s right.” Mother shot me an amused glance. “Chocolate sauce.”
“Ice cream is calming,” I muttered. “Speaking of people trying to kill me ….”
Any trace of amusement left the Hag’s face. She set down her tea and looked over my shoulder. “Yes. You have my deepest gratitude, Vigilant Sedgewick. Twice in a single night and day you have saved my daughter.”
“It was my duty and honor, Ma’am.”
Did he bow? I couldn’t see, but I was pretty sure that he bowed.
The Hag waved to another floor pillow. “Sit, please. Tell me everything. Don’t leave out any detail.”
Two hours later, my voice had nearly given out. We drank our way through the pot of tea. At some point, Tohra appeared with a fresh supply, slipping silently back out again. Meritha pulled her puffy ear muffs from around her neck and shoved them into a pocket, then pulled them back out again and rolled them over and over in her hands.
We told her everything, each of us filling in details as we went along. The attack on the coven house, the melted ironwood poles, the dead bodies, the scene at the Skiya River, my collapse and near breakdown, the second attack on the North Road, our stand at Javith Lake, the summoning of the drowned dead.
Sedgewick remained completely calm and professional through his entire report, his back straight, his voice even — right up until our visit to the crime scene near the Skiya when I had touched the hollow bones and …
… they had what? Tried to eat me? Consume me?
I failed to suppress a shiver at the memory.
At that point in the story, Sedgewick’s voice went cold and cracked. He stopped, drank some more tea, and continued, right up until our arrival at the Great Pyramid.
The Hag narrowed her eyes at me and took another sip of tea. The bones in her hair clinked again. After a long, long silence, and still looking at me, she asked, “Vigilant Sedgewick, how long have you been part of my daughter’s protective detail?”
“The First Marshall assigned me to that coven just over three years ago.”
Three years? Under my mother’s scrutiny, I kept my expression as neutral as possible. I knew that Sedgewick had been around for a while, but the first time I really remember interacting with him was en route to the Winter Solstice last year. He had given me a handkerchief to wipe off the chocolate sauce; some of it, anyway.
And he had been at the courthouse last spring, standing guard over me while sirens wailed and Meritha picked pieces of Mykal and Grieta out of my hair.
And then he had been named First Vigilant of our coven and, by the time I returned from the hospital, Grieta’s things had been packed away and he was already moved into her room.
Not Grieta’s room. Sedgewick’s room for the last eight months.
“You are correct in your assessment, Investigator Javes. And my daughter no doubt noted the same.” The Hag paused to set down her cup and look at all of us in turn. “What you found near the Skiya River was a perversion of an elemental altar. It is called the Wheel of Unbecoming.”
I frowned. “I’ve never heard of that.”
My mother’s face went very carefully flat. “I should certainly hope not. If you had — daughter of mine or not — I would have had you muted and exiled.”
Meritha whistled. When the Hag raised an eyebrow at her, she flushed. “Sorry, was that disrespectful? It was meant to convey awe. Because — really. Very impressed by that threat. Seriously.”
“As you should be.” Some of the flatness left my mother’s face. She closed her eyes for a long moment. Then she sighed and blinked. “Very well. What I am about to reveal to you does not leave this room. Ever. You speak of it to no one but me. Not your fellow necromancers, or Investigators, or Vigilants. Not the First Marshall, and not the other High Holy Orders. I make myself clear?”
“Absolutely. Yes, Ma’am.” Meritha nodded.
Sedgewick dipped his head, but I could see how his hands curled on his legs. “I understand, Hag.”
My mouth went dry and my tongue stuck. I could only nod.
“The Wheel of Unbecoming is a very old rite. So ancient that some speculate that it was one of the Primal Rites taught to us by the Creators.”
I gaped at her in horror. “Why would the Creators — why …?”
“Because sometimes a thing needs to be unmade. Foul elemental abominations birthed by arcanists. A dragon who has turned feral and is poisoning the world around it. Once, a zoemancer who went mad and whose higher soul could not be exorcised; she kept creating and creating and creating .… She was a cancer who had woven herself into the very landscape and who would, eventually, have destroyed the world.”
My mind flashed back to the previous night, when I had calmed myself and entertained Cha-Cha with the adventures of the Nine-Tailed Cat of Suxia. My voice shook. “You’re speaking of the White Grandmother.”
“Waaiit a minute.” Meritha leaned forward on her pillow. “Everyone knows this story. She was killed by the Four Paladins: Vigilant Ordessa, Necromancer Syl, Mijn the Unitaur, and the Nine-Tailed Cat. We’re taught this in school. I had to memorize the entire poem my senior year.”
“Yes. You are correct, Investigator Javes. The White Grandmother was slain by the Four Paladins. But her higher soul remained.” My mother paused. “There is a reason that Necromancer Syl disappears from the historical texts after the Burning of Suxia. He did not retreat to some isolated necropolis to study and meditate, nor did he sail off across the sea in search of new lands and adventures. He knew that the White Grandmother was not truly gone, and the only way to be rid of her — forever — was the Wheel of Unbecoming.”
“The bones,” I whispered.
The Hag looked at me, waiting.
I swallowed. “The hollow bones at the center of the Wheel. A necromancer.”
My mother nodded. “A subversion, or even perversion, of our holy gift. As with all rites, six are required: priests of life and death and the elements. The necromancer is placed within the Wheel and bound to a person, a spirit, a creature. And, as the necromancer is unmade, elements stripped away, higher soul unwoven, so that to which they are bound is also unmade. Undone. Completely.”
Sedgewick’s hand settled on my leg. I jerked, and forced myself to breathe. His voice sounded distant. “Could the necromancer be bound to more than one person? Four, perhaps?”
The Hag seemed to consider his words. “There are indications of such in some of the stories that have been passed down, from one Hag or Haggard or Hagi to another. But only if the necromancer is powerful enough. Syl was arguably the strongest necromancer of his generation; only he could have unmade the White Grandmother.” He gaze settled on me again. “As you are, my daughter.”
I was standing. I didn’t remember getting to my feet. But I was standing, looking down at a startled Meritha and a concerned Sedgewick and my mother, whose expression was once again carefully flat.
She picked up her cup and took another sip of tea.
“Excuse me. I need some air.”
I shoved through the beautifully carved doors. I hung a hard right at Tohra’s desk, brushing against it and knocking over a neat stack of books. They tumbled to the floor behind me. Tohra snapped something. I didn’t stop. I pushed through another door in the wall and stepped out onto the narrow deck. I kept going until I walked right into the stone railing, caught it with my hands, leaned over, and vomited down the side of the Great Pyramid.
When my stomach was eventually emptied of milk and maple bun and walnuts, I pressed my forehead to the railing. The cold stone made me shiver, sweat dribbling down my spine. The wind cut through my clothing.
A blanket wrapped around me and a hand settled on the back of my neck, massaging gently. I rolled my head against the stone, surprised to see my mother. She had wrapped a robe around herself, and the bones in her long graying hair clinked and clacked in the wind.
She continued to rub my tight muscles, her gaze drifting across Egleia. It spread out ahead and around us: the central district with its four elemental towers, the skyscrapers and vertical gardens, then the residential districts and the parkland, and finally the wall and the wilderness beyond and then, so far to the south as to be lost in the distance, the ruins of Petral.
“I find myself in an awful position, daughter. I am the Hag of the High Holy Orders. The overseer of all necromancers in Egleia. Dear to the Creators. Beloved of the Ancestors and Speaker for the Dead. My duty is to them, and to this city and its people. Someone — something — some terrible unknown is threatening all of them now. Has already killed many of them. … And yet I can think only of the danger to my own daughter.”
I threw my arms around her in a fierce hug. My back twinged in protest. I ignored it. Her arms closed around me in turn, her grip tight. She pressed her lips to my forehead. She was crying.
“I am so sorry, Alys.” She curled a hand around the back of my head and hugged me even tighter. “But I do not think that I can protect you from what’s coming.”
The elevator was quiet for two whole floors, only the hum of the gears as we descended towards the ground. I stood at the back, blanket still over my shoulders, my eyes closed, head resting against the wall. My stomach had calmed, and now rumbled again with hunger. Meritha and Sedgewick stood in front of me.
Two whole floors of quiet.
“Lying liars, that’s what you are,” Meritha snapped. “Ordinary office my ass. That was the most not-ordinary office I have ever been in. It was awesome. An awesome office. I want an office like that. All those cool knick-knacky things.”
I didn’t bother to open my eyes. “Ritual tools. Relics from past rites. Gifts from the Hags, Haggards, and Hagi of other cities.”
“Knick-knacky things. Also, we don’t know things. We don’t know a lot of things. I hate not knowing things. It pisses me off. Did whoever these … Unbecomers are try to kill you last spring? Did they plant that bomb? If so, why? And if so, why didn’t they try again right away? If they want you dead, why wait eight months to hit your coven house? And how did we not notice necromancers going missing? There were multiple sets of bones in that Wheel. They’ve done this several times. Three, at least. And who’s to say that’s the only Wheel?”
I finally opened my eyes. “They may not be from Egleia.” Meritha half-turned to squint at me. “That Wheel was built in the wilderness. They could be taking necromancers from multiple cities and performing the rite out where they think no one will notice.”
“I wonder if there have been attacks in other cities then, too, and we just haven’t heard about it. Or if they’re just targeting Egleia. Targeting you.” Meritha turned and whacked Sedgewick on the arm. “Are you listening? This is important.”
He barely moved. “No.”
“Well, you apparently are listening, but you apparently don’t think this is important.”
The elevator pinged.
“In order: No, I am not listening to you ramble incoherently. Yes, this is very important. That’s why I’m thinking quietly.”
The doors slid open. Sedgewick stepped into the opening, looked around, and then motioned us after him.
The grand entrance hall of the Great Pyramid was busier than it had been when we arrived. A gaggle of schoolchildren followed their teacher and a novitiate across the floor, moving from one statue to another. Necromantic and zoemantic novitiates in first and second year robes swarmed the food stands, stuffing their faces with sandwiches and pastries between classes. Pilgrims and petitioners and bureaucrats floated here and there, gliding between the desks, the elevators, and the front doors.
His gaze constantly moving, Sedgewick led us across the room. Meritha fell into place behind me. We walked quickly, exiting the hall to find the unmarked car still sitting out front, a helpful guard standing in position beside it. He backed away when he saw us.
Sedgewick opened the door, eased me into the back seat, and then slipped off his sword. By the time he had dropped into the front passenger seat, Meritha was already behind the wheel. She was pulling away just as he was closing his door, sword angled across his lap again.
“Thinking quietly about what?” she demanded.
“Our lack of information.”
“Pft. You really weren’t listening. I already said that.”
I stared out the window, watching pilgrims and priests wander the grounds. Meritha steered the car around a busload of tourists, their phones out to snap pictures, taking us into the towering shadow of Osira’s Temple.
“We need information. Who is performing these rites, why, and why are they targeting Alys?”
“Fine.” Meritha nodded. “Unofficially, I might know a few investigators in Charith and Theleia. I can ask them about missing necromancers and other weird goings-on. Unofficially, they might tell me. Same with the Rangers out in the wildlands. Might be they’ve run across something other than the usual ironwood poachers and feral predators.”
“I will speak with the First Marshall — though I refuse to believe that she would keep such information from me.”
“And I will go where necromancers have always gone when they require knowledge.” The tunnel closed over us. One of the carved roqs glared at me balefully, elephant clutched in its talons, while sinuous cloud sprites swirled overhead.
Sedgewick turned in his seat and I met his gaze, for a moment. There was concern there, and determination and stubbornness, and also other things that I didn’t want to see.
I remembered how his voice had cracked and gone cold.
Cowardice won out, and I looked away.
I tightened my grip on the blanket. “To speak with the dead.”
[End Part Five. Part Six will appear in the March 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]