The rite was a simple one. We had no names, no objects linked to the deceased, the twenty-three innocents lost during the raid on the camp. So we made do, using only the most basic tools and words.

I had caught sight of Dalis slipping out the door just before Taz, Kanady, and I processed down to the basement. Again, Sedgewick just shook his head at me and said nothing. Meritha remained in the kitchen, inhaling ice cream and tapping away at her phone.

Now Sedgewick (and even Cha-Cha) stood guard outside the necropolis, holding vigil while we Worked.

I stood in the center of the circle of shrines and pillars, and sang in the First Tongue, offering apologies and comfort to the lost. Offering them hope, guiding them to the Creators. As I sang, Taz and Kanady burned feathers, mixed the ash with water and dirt, and smeared the paste in long streaks down their cheeks and across their foreheads. They fell to their knees and wailed, arms raised. When the song was complete, I fell to me knees, too, sweating and spent.

We remained on the ground for long minutes, heads bowed, breathing heavily.

My mind drifted, going over what Lal Rithin had revealed, his description of the laughing zoemancer and the horrible, simultaneous death of the necromancer and the dragon.

“That’s why they’re afraid of us now.”

I didn’t realize that I had spoken aloud until Taz reached over and took my hand. I could feel the grit of the paste on her fingers.

“What? Who?” she asked.

And I told them. I told them everything. Our frantic run into the camp, finding Othinith, sitting down with Lal Rithin, his awful recitation of the destruction of Petral, the undoing of the dragon and the necromancer. Then our frantic exit from the camp, the long walk, and The Rite of the Ascendancy that I had performed for Inirin. And her strange words/images/emotions. Daughter. Away. Gone away. South. Home. Home.

A long, heavy silence.

Taz lifted a hand to wipe tears and smeared paste from her cheeks   

“That’s why they’re afraid. Everyone.” My voice was low, almost a whisper. “Egleians. That’s why they’ve been moving away from us, don’t want to live near us. Why the old ways of honoring necromancers have been abandoned.” I lifted my head, looking up through the dirt. “Because they know.”

Kanady was nodding slowly, staring at nothing. “It’s not conscious, not open knowledge. But people still know. Down in their bones, in their soul.” 

Taz frowned, still holding my hand. “But … that was a zoemancer. And there were others there. Hydromancer, pyromancer, anemancer, geomancer. All of the Orders were involved.”

“But it was a necromancer who was undone.” I bit the inside of my lip. “It was a necromancer who was reduced to nothingness in an illegal, unsanctioned, perverted rite. Whoever he was, he ….”

“Tainted the Order.” Kanady’s voice was hard, their jaw tight. “Like a poison spreading through the air, or through water. Egleia defeated Petral. Completely destroyed the city in a way that was wholly unnatural. People of the time knew that, they knew something terrible had happened.”

“But they couldn’t admit it. Couldn’t say the words out loud.”

Taz was nodding now. “Couldn’t even really understand it. They just knew that something was wrong — and that the wrongness was coming from the necromancers.”

“That’s why people have drifted away from us,” I continued. “Why enrollment in the seminary has gone down, why there are fewer people every year making the pilgrimage to the Great Pyramid. Why more Egleians are making pilgrimages to the Great Pyramids of other cities, rather than making the climb to the top of ours.” I shifted on my knees, dropping into a more comfortable position with my legs crossed in front of me. I rolled my hips to stretch my back. “Necromancers in Charith, Taranz, Theleia …. Still highly regarded and respected, still honored in the old way. And refugees from Petral were fully integrated into those cities. But not here.”

“Shame,” Taz whispered.

Kanady ran a hand over their head. “Deep down in our souls, the people of Egleia know what we did. We can’t face it, can’t speak it. So we turn away from the people we hurt, and from those who caused the harm. The pain. The death of a dragon and its city.”

More silence, somber and wretched.

I took Kanady’s hand and clambered to my feet, pulling both of them after me. “Come on. I need food, and I need to know what you uncovered in the library.”

***

Dinner was long and rambling as we helped ourselves to milk, juice, scrambled eggs mixed with spinach and peppers, toast, cheesy bread, and spicy sausage. Brief periods of silence interrupted by sounds of chewing and clanking silverware, while Cha-Cha wove between our legs begging for food. Then more conversation, questions and arguing and more questions, and more plans.

Meritha described her entrance into the camp with the horde of Law and Enforcement Officers and the Necromantic Vigilants, and how quickly “everything went to complete shit.” The Vigilants ignored any orders she tried to issue. The LEOs listened to her at first, but quickly followed the Vigilants’ lead.

“They were so angry. I heard some of them yelling that it was payback for the bus on the North Road. Just trashed the place, and beat down anyone who got in the way. Saw a little girl get trampled by a police horse right in front of me. Got her to an ambulance as fast as I could, but ….” Meritha shrugged, the gesture abrupt and angry.

I poked at the eggs that remained on my plate, pushing them around in a circle. “So, what did you find in the library?”

“What? Oh. Um.” Taz blinked, looking back and forth between me and Kanady, who rolled their shoulders in response. Taz set down her fork and straightened in her chair. “There’s a relationship between the divine summoning and whatever the Creators have deemed … anathema.”

Sedgewick paused as he lifted a glass of milk. “What sort of relationship?”

“Familial.” Kanady shoved their plate away. “Abaras Syl was the White Grandmother’s grandson.”

Meritha choked on a piece of cheesy bread. “That’s not in the epic poem.”

“Found it buried in Dynath’s Travels Through the Eastern Cities, and Observations Made Thereupon.”

“Boring,” Meritha muttered.

“Very,” Taz agreed.

“The important part is in a footnote to the nineteenth chapter. Dynath mentions a small memorial shrine to Syl in one of the outer residential rings of Suxia. It marks his birthplace, and notes his maternal line back three generations. Naming his mother’s mother as none other than Naniria Syl.”

I frowned. “And the elemental abominations created by the Arcanists of Kazyth? And the Mad Dragon of Orzira?”

“The daughter of two of the Arcanists.” Cha-Cha jumped onto Kanady’s lap, shoving her head against their chest and purring loudly. “She was stolen out of the Arcanists’ tower by a disgruntled apprentice when she was an infant and raised in secret by a tribe of unitaurs. Who, of course, rallied around her to later defeat the Arcanists. She’s gone down in history as —”

“Katinnia the Unitaur,” I interrupted.

“We found that little tidbit buried in a footnote to a footnote in The Chronicles of Si Juheren the Architect. Apparently he spent a few days studying the ruins of the tower and spoke to the unitaurs who still live in the area.”

I cleared my throat. I could feel Sedgewick watching me. “And the Mad Dragon?”

Kanady scratched the back of Cha-Cha’s head. “That one took a lot more digging, and it’s not absolute. But the circumstantial evidence is pretty good.” They hesitated, grimacing. “The dragon was originally driven mad when it was captured and tortured by a coven of geomancers. Something about wanting to harness and direct the dragon’s earth-centric elemental magic. Didn’t work, of course. The dragon killed them all and escaped, but by then it had been perverted. It poisoned the world with every breath, so the Creators summoned Jo Hinanan to stop it.”

“Jo Hinanan, with their skin of stone and their teeth of obsidian and their blood like the blood of the earth.” Sedgewick drained his glass of milk. “Poetic description of a geomancer?”

Kanady grimaced again and lifted a hand in an expression of uncertainty. “Maybe? That was almost five thousand years ago. There are no direct records left, no primary sources. Only stories written down much later; centuries later. Jo Hinanan could have been the child or grandchild or even great-grandchild of one or more of the geomancers whose greed and arrogance created the Mad Dragon.” They looked directly at me. “Which brings us to you.”

I took one last bite of cold eggs, wiped my mouth with my napkin, and pushed everything away. I leaned back in my chair, trying to keep my voice calm and steady. “As I said yesterday, I am not a divine summoning, and this just proves it. I am in no way related to whoever that poor necromancer was who was undone in the caverns beneath Petral. And I certainly am not related to the laughing zoemancer. I know my entire family tree, my lineage all the way back to the first duMar to step through the Western Gate four hundred years ago. I can name all my grandparents and great-grandparents. None of them died or disappeared during the war with Petral.”

“You sure?” Meritha asked around another mouthful of cheesy bread.

I glared at her. “Positive. I am not a divine summoning.”

Taz pursed her lips. “Then … who is?”

Kanady opened their mouth, but, before they could answer, Meritha’s phone pinged. She pulled it out, read the screen, swore, and tapped out a response. “Varney,” she said without looking up. “They re-examined the bodies of the motorcyclists and the team that attacked the coven house. You were right.” She flicked an eyebrow in Kanady’s direction. “They found traces of ironwood on three of the corpses.”

“What do you mean by traces?” they asked.

Meritha paused, reading through the message again and flipping between images.

“Slivers. Coroner describes them as ‘miniature spikes.’ Driven through the ocular nerve and into the cranial cavity. Gruesome.”

Taz winced and curled her shoulders, hunching over her plate.

“So, yeah.” Meritha finished typing and tucked her phone away again. “Ironwood is the key to changing the Rite of Unbecoming, to perverting it into something else.”

“What about the people?” I asked. “The people whose souls were unmade while their bodies remained intact? Or the necromancer who had to be turned into nothing each time —”

I stumbled to a halt and a buzzing filled my ears.

A necromancer had been the key to unmaking Petral. It would have taken a powerful — a very powerful — necromancer. As Mother had noted, Abaras Syl was the most gifted necromancer of his generation, the only one who could stop the White Grandmother. 

And I was the strongest of mine.

A necromancer to destroy a city.

“Alys?”

I jumped. “What?”

Everyone was looking at me.

“I said yes, some of them have been identified.” Meritha tilted her head. “All Egleian, but not the most upstanding citizens. A couple of unemployed drug addicts, a known ironwood poacher, a rapist on parole, and at least one unregistered courtesan. We’re still working to identify the others.”

I swallowed. “But, so far, none of them seem to be Petralans.”

“ … No ….”

I heard Sedgewick inhale. “You figured it out.” 

I lifted my head and met his gaze. His expression was hard and angry. In my peripheral vision, I saw Kanady pale, their eyes going wide. I tried to swallow again, but my throat was too dry, so I grabbed my glass and drained the last of the juice.

“What?” Taz looked around the table. “What am I missing?”

I couldn’t say the words.

Sedgewick carefully set down his fork. “If we are correct that the people — the group — who have targeted Alys are Petralans, then their goal is likely not to kill her. At least not yet.”

Taz twisted her napkin in her hands. “What do you mean?” she whispered.

I repeated Lal Rithin’s words again, reciting exactly what he had said. 

The circle drawn in the earth, and the four cardinal lines. North, south, east, west. An ironwood pole in their hands while they sang the song. That terrible song. That poor man in the center. Floating, twisting, as he tore apart. His breath first, then his blood, then the fire of his heart, then his body. Then finally his soul.

Why did you murder us?

“A city for a city,” Sedgewick said. “They’ll kill anyone who comes between them and Alys — so that they can use her to unmake Egleia.”

“But ….” Taz looked around at each of us, her expression fearful. “There’s no dragon. Egleia doesn’t have a dragon.”

Kanady scrubbed their hands through their hair. “They figured out how to pervert the Wheel of Unbecoming into something the Creators never intended. Maybe they also figured out how to unmake a city, even without a dragon.”

***

More plotting, more planning, more arguing. My thoughts wandered, dark and frightened and angry, growing increasingly confused as exhaustion took over.

“I will send word to First Vigilant Armeia that we not be departing for Petral tomorrow morning,” Sedgewick announced.

My eyes flew open, and I realized that I had fallen asleep at the table.

“Second that.” Meritha stood and gathered up her plate, glass, and utensils. “I haven’t heard back from my ranger contact yet. He might need another day. Tomorrow we rest and recuperate. We’ll head south the day after. And I’m spending the night. And I’m doing it with a door between me and that.” She waved her plate at Cha-Cha, who just turned up her nose in disdain.

“Uh, the only spare bed is all the way upstairs.” Taz flushed and fiddled with her blue-tinted hair. “Mykal and Kanady’s old room.”

Meritha paused in the door of the kitchen. “Oh. Well. The couch is —”

“It’s fine.” Kanady gently dropped Cha-Cha to the floor and gathered up their own dishes. “Really. It is. Take the bed upstairs.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” They nodded, inhaling slowly. “You’ll need to get some clean sheets out of the linen closet, though.”

Taz jumped up. “I can help with that.”

“Okey dokey.” Meritha dumped her dirty dishes in the sink and then followed Taz up the stairs, muttering something about how many blankets she needed.

I crossed my arms on the table, leaning forward as Kanady added my plate and utensils to the pile in their arms. “Don’t I have a say in when we leave? The sooner the better. We need to get to Petral and to Petreia, find out who’s behind these attacks, find evidence of the cover-up from the war.”

“We will.” Sedgewick stopped next to me and held out his arm, elbow crooked. “The day after tomorrow. We all need rest. Come. I’ll escort you upstairs.”

I remembered the kiss in his room last night, and the kiss in the woods this afternoon. I could feel myself blushing, and hoped that Kanady wasn’t watching. Slipping my hand through Sedgewick’s arm, I rose to me feet and followed him around the table. As we past the kitchen doorway, I paused.

Kanady looked up from the sink, which was already beginning to fill with soapy water. “Go on.” They waved a dirty fork at their head. “This helps me think.”

“All right, then. Good night.”

“Night.”                 

  Still holding Sedgewick’s arm, I slowly climbed the stairs. He was wonderfully warm. The confusion of dark and angry and frightened thoughts faded, just a little. I expected a night filled with bad dreams, but maybe I would be able to sleep after all.

Cha-Cha skipped around us, jumping up the steps and disappearing through my bedroom door at the end of the hallway.

Sedgewick sighed.

“What? Worried that she’ll still get to Meritha? Don’t. I’ll keep Cha-Cha locked up for the night.”

“That’s not what concerns me.” He stopped to flip open the linen closet and grab a blanket and bare pillow. “I’m concerned that she’ll attack me.”

I blinked at him in surprise.

He released my arm and walked into my room, skirting around the bed to check the locks on the window. Cha-Cha glared at him from the middle of the bed. When he pulled the curtains and turned around, she half-hissed at him.

“Cha-Cha, shoosh. You’re … staying? In here?”

“I am.” He stepped around me to close and lock the door, and then spread the blanket across the floor, right at the threshold.

“ … Oh.” I crossed my arms over my chest, my heart beginning to thud. “If you’re that concerned, I could just sleep in the panic room.” I gestured towards the narrow ironwood door in the opposite wall.

Cha-Cha hissed and dove under the bed.

“I considered it.” He dropped onto his blanket and pulled off his boots, then slipped his pistol free of its harness and tucked it under the pillow. “But the space is too small. Your back would be a mess. You would be in too much pain and too stiff to travel.”

I rocked on my feet, arms still crossed. “Good point. Thank you.” I backed up a few steps, half turned, until my legs touched the bed. I lowered myself onto the mattress. “So. When did you figure it out? Obviously way before me.”

He set aside his boots, lining them up against the wall next to the door. “Not much longer. In the woods, during The Rite of the Ascendancy for Inirin. I watched you work, remembered what Lal Rithin had said.” He shrugged, pulling the blanket across his lap. “But it is only a theory.”

I grabbed my own blankets, pulling them aside so that I could slip into the bed, still wearing my sweatshirt, baggy pants, and poofy socks. A few moments later, Sedgewick reached up and switched off the light. Another few moments, and Cha-Cha emerged to crawl under the blankets and cuddle against my side.

“Thank you. For protecting me in the camp. For protecting me now. And … for whatever else you might have to protect me from in the future.”

I rolled onto my side, arm under my head. Cha-Cha squirmed and stretched. In the darkness, Sedgewick was just a dark shape against the door.

“It is my honor and privilege, Alys. It always has been, and it always will be.”

I blinked, fighting to stay awake for just a few more minutes.

“You could protect me just as well from over here.”

He didn’t move. I blinked again, and then again, my eyes gritty. 

Faintly, I heard a soft shuffling, felt the puff of air as a pillow and blanket dropped to the floor. I slid my hand over the edge of the bed, and felt his fingers wrap around mine.

He held my hand all through the night, and never let go.

[End Part Sixteen. Part Seventeen appears in the March 2022 issue of ev0ke.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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