The parking lot of Javith Lake was filled to capacity with emergency vehicles, as was the road leading down to the lake. Clumps of people huddled around the remains of the motorcycles and their dead — previously dead, already dead — drivers. I was certain that the same was true of the two motorcycles which had been destroyed on the North Road.
And the bus. The bus filled with innocent pilgrims and merchants and tourists.
I was a necromancer. I should be there, helping, calming the higher souls so that they could move on. I could feel them, calling, pulling.
Instead I was here, stuck, locked up in the back of an ambulance.
Okay, not actually locked up. But Sedgewick had made it very clear that I was not to go anywhere or there would be Consequences with a capital C.
From where I lay propped up on the gurney, the medic beside me quietly digging through drawers and cabinets, I could see Sedgewick through the back window. He was pacing back and forth between clumps of officers and other Vigilants and people in uniforms that I didn’t recognize. Every now and then, he would glance towards the ambulance; probably making sure that I was following orders.
I should have felt safer with all of these people around. But I didn’t. It had been crowded in front of the courthouse all those months ago, too, when Mykal and Grieta had been killed. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I wanted to be home, wrapped up in a blanket with Cha-Cha in my lap.
No, I needed to be at the bus, helping those higher souls move on.
No, I needed to be at the Necropolis, conferring with the Hag.
I ground my teeth, competing needs and desires warring with one another while the terror and excitement of the recent attack gave way to anxiety and nervousness. I was a mess. In my current state, I would be of no use to those higher souls; they needed necromancers who could focus on their duty. I reluctantly admitted as much to myself, doing my best to shut out their call, to resist their pull.
The EMT leaned back into my field of vision and offered a hesitant smile. “How’s the headache? And the nausea?”
“Mostly gone. Thank you.” I grimaced, shifting against the mattress. The embedded heat spell was comforting, if a little uneven; the backs of my knees felt too warm.
She held up a couple of fingers. “And the vision?”
“Clear now. Not fuzzy anymore.”
She nodded and held out a small bottle. “Keep drinking the nutrient water. I want you to down at least two of them before I release you. You expended a mountain of energy summoning the souls of the lake.” She shook her head. “Sounds amazing. Almost wish I’d been here to see it.”
I fiddled with the bottle cap, feeling a blush spread up my neck. “Any necromancer could have done the same.”
Her eyebrows jumped. “If you say so.”
There was a knock at the back door. A split second later, Meritha swung it open and leaned in, her purple earmuffs fluttering. She scowled at me. “You look terrible.”
“Yeah, but I only feel awful, which is better.”
The medic squinted at me. “You just said you were feeling better.”
Meritha talked right over her. “We need some alone time. You. Scoot.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder.
The EMT’s mouth fell open. “I —”
“Bye-bye.” Meritha moved to the side and waved her arm in a shooing motion.
The medic hesitated, looking back and forth between us. Then she sighed in surrender. “I’ll be right outside. Yell if you need me.”
“I will. Thank you.”
I took the opportunity to drink some more nutrient water as the EMT and Meritha switched places. The medic was right. Calling to the drowned souls had been draining; and that was in addition to touching the hollow bones near the Skiya River. If we had been at home, I would have settled down for a nice cleansing and grounding rite in the basement necropolis, followed by a thick stack of pancakes, and a really long nap. For now, I would have to make do.
Meritha plopped onto the foldout seat next to the gurney. “Okay, this chair is really uncomfortable so I’ll talk fast.” She started to tick off fingers. “Your coven house gets attacked last night by people who were already dead. Yes, Willow told me. Communication is important. Then we uncover a very weird crime scene. Don’t think I missed that it looked like an elemental altar. Can we just say human sacrifice? ‘Cause that’s sure what it looked like. Then there is — very conveniently — a bombing on your only route back into Egleia. You get stuck in traffic and, lo and behold, a bunch of suicidal motorcyclists with bombs strapped to their bodies ambush you. I find all of this far beyond coincidental.”
“It wasn’t a bunch. Just four.”
“Five,” she corrected me. “Sedgewick says the survivor gave you all the stink eye before driving off. When we autopsy the pieces of the other motorcyclists, are we going to find they were dead, too, like the group who attacked your coven house? ‘Cause it sure sounds like it, from the way Sedgewick described them. Did I miss anything?”
“Sedgewick has a sword.”
“A flaming sword.”
Meritha’s eyebrows shot up. “Flaming?”
“Well, now I really want to spar with him. You are under twenty-four hour protection. So are Taz and Kanady, and every other necromancer in Egleia, I don’t care how annoyed Sedgewick and his fellow Vigilants are by having my officers around. No arguing.”
She humphed. Then she leaned forward and crushed me in a hug. “I am really really glad that you’re not dead. I don’t want any more dead friends.”
I returned the hug, awkwardly wrapping my arms around her and trying not to drop the water bottle. Her muffs tickled my nose. I felt my eyes tearing up.
There was a sharp knock at the back door.
“Go away!” Meritha yelled. “We’re having a moment!”
The door swung open. Sedgewick paused, one hand braced against the frame. “Taz and Kanady are safely back at the coven house. The Commandery has dispatched an additional squad of Vigilants to stand watch.”
I pulled away from Meritha, sniffling. “Well, that’ll piss off the neighbors even more.”
“Their feelings don’t concern me. Your safety does. I’ve secured a vehicle to transport us to the Necropolis.”
Meritha scowled. “What now?”
I cleared my throat, firmly shoving away the desire to cuddle with Cha-Cha. “I need to speak with the Hag. Like you said. Dead bodies. Human sacrifice.” My mouth went dry and I look another long swig of water. “If anyone has the answers, she does.”
Meritha was not happy. She sat in the driver’s seat, lips pursed in annoyance. Operr had been too badly injured to rejoin us; his head wound had left him loopy and unfocused. Sedgewick had ordered him to the hospital and then back to the Commandery to rest and recover. He had been just as unhappy as Meritha, though for different reasons.
Sedgewick sat in the front passenger seat, a civilian jacket thrown over his armor, his sword unbuckled and laid at an angle across his lap. He never stopped looking around.
“Doing okay back there?” Meritha called out.
I grunted. “Fine.” I shifted position, trying to find a more comfortable spot for my right leg. My back spasmed and I sucked in a breath. The small space between the front seats and the backseat was not made for a grown human being. I was wedged in tight behind Meritha, a blanket tossed over my body; only my head poked out. The car Sedgewick had commandeered was small and plain; no lights, no logo, nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the traffic moving to and from the city center.
I wanted to complain that this was ridiculous. That Sedgewick was just being paranoid.
But he wasn’t.
Someone had tried to kill me. Us.
I think us. Maybe?
“Did they know it was me?”
I cleared my throat. “They had no way of knowing whether it would be me or Taz or Kanady in the car, right? When the … bombers attacked.”
“That’s unclear at the moment.”
I sank a bit lower against the floor. Anxiety twisted through me. “That’s a yes. At least you’re working under the assumption that they’re after me. Not Taz or Kanady.” Beneath the blanket, I fiddled with a half-empty water bottle. The medic had insisted on sending me along with another full bottle, and now I really needed to go to the bathroom. “Why?”
“The attack last night was directed at the side of the house where your room is located. And I had you in the same vehicle traveling to and from the crime scene.” There was a growl of self-recrimination and annoyance in his voice. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
I unscrewed and re-screwed the lid several times. “So … is this just extremists who hate necromancers or something else?” A horrible, horrible thought entered my head and once it was there I couldn’t dislodge it. It whirled around and around until it was the only thought I had. “Is it the same people who killed Mykal and Grieta? Did they kill Mykal and Grieta by mistake?”
An even longer silence this time.
Finally, Sedgewick answered. “I don’t know.”
I spent the rest of the drive playing with the water bottle, ripping the label to shreds, and unscrewing and re-screwing the cap. My phone gurgled once, then died; when I dug it out of my pocket, water dribbled out of the camera hole. I tucked it back into my pocket and went back to ripping the label. From my position on the floor, I could only catch glimpses of the middle and upper floors of the buildings we passed. When skyscrapers and vertical farms began to replace small businesses, grocers, and residences, I knew that we were getting close.
My right leg fell asleep. I shifted position again, but it didn’t do much good. Anxiety made my hands shake. My back twitched. I was hungry. And I really needed a bathroom.
The skyscrapers vanished. Sporadic trees appeared against the cold sky, bare branches swinging back and forth in the wind.
A shadow fell across the car. I craned my head, twisting around and pushing myself up to peer through the windshield. Sedgewick glowered down at me. I ignored him and the pain in my back. The Northern Temple of Osira rose straight and tall into the sky, a tower of black stone and twisted wrought iron. The sides were sculpted with wind imagery: clouds and nephelen, tornadoes, tumbling leaves, ravens and owls, stylized squiggly lines. Up and up rose the Temple, too high for me to see the top.
Meritha tapped the brakes and the car slowed.
Panic clenched around my chest. For a moment, I was back at the North Gate again, the car trapped. My heart thudded and sweat beaded my forehead. Then it was gone. I was here, in the sheltering shadow of Osira’s Temple.
The tower loomed taller, closer, as the vehicle moved forward. The road ran straight and true through the center of the Temple, the archway carved with smiling, sinuous nephelen. The cloud sprites smiled down at us as we approached, long hair and beards trailing away to vapor, breasts pert, phalli erect. Their hands were lifted in greeting and invitation.
The car slid to a stop and I squeaked in alarm when a face suddenly appeared at the passenger window. The guard frowned down at me, then took a step to the side to confer with Sedgewick. I couldn’t hear what they said.
Sedgewick turned to look back at me, his tone flat. “You’ll need to get on the seat now. They need to make sure that you don’t have any weapons. I told him that you are not exiting the vehicle.”
I gaped at him for a moment. I had visited the Necropolis dozens, if not hundreds, of times. They knew me.
Sedgewick tipped his head towards the seat.
Jaw tight, I bundled the blanket into an inelegant ball and tossed it onto the floor near my feet. The water bottle followed. Getting up into the seat was even more difficult and painful than I had expected. The guard watched me through the window the whole time. My back twinged and spasmed, and I bit the inside of my lip to hold back a moan. I clawed at the seat, managed to angle one foot, pushed, and flapped up onto my belly.
More clawing and sweating. I eventually heaved myself around, my back in knots.
I glared at the guard, humiliation hot in my veins. “Happy now? Enjoy the show?”
He didn’t answer. He stepped back and waved us through.
I shoved sweaty hair out of my eyes. The car entered the tunnel. Embedded illumination spells, just like those in my panic room but much stronger and brighter, highlighted the carvings that continued from the archway, along the ceiling and walls. Swirling clouds, ferocious tornadoes. Wide-eyed owls and thick-beaked ravens. A life-size pair of roqs, one on either side of the tunnel; they each held an elephant in their claws and the eye that peered at us from opposite walls was as big around as the car.
Wide black stone sidewalks lined the road and a handful of delicate bridges arced overhead. Artfully disguised doorways appeared every few feet, leading to the interior of the Temple. Priests and novitiates and pilgrims, some hurrying, others walking sedately, came and went through the doors; the priests’ black robes were so light that they fluttered in the breeze, and many of the pilgrims have painted their hands and faces black.
It took us five minutes to traverse the tunnel. I spent the time carefully inhaling and exhaling, and gently stretching. The pain in my back receded to manageable levels.
We exited the tunnel and the Great Pyramid glimmered ahead of us in the cold daylight. Its four sides, smooth except for the wide ceremonial staircases that led to the very top, were a swirl of black and red and blue and green. The different colored stones were so perfectly fitted together that not even a sheet of paper could slip between them. (I know. I had tried, along with every other necromantic novitiate who had climbed those steps over the last five hundred years.)
Meritha sighed. “We’re not going to have to climb up there, are we? I haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
“No.” Sedgewick shook his head. “I highly doubt the Hag is in the Necropolis now. She’s probably in her office.”
“Never been. Is it cool?”
I stretched again, carefully turning to the left and right as the Great Pyramid filled the front window. “Not cool at all. It’s an office. Looks like every other office.”
Meritha stuck out her tongue. “I am heartily disappointed.”
“Don’t tell the Hag that,” Sedgewick cautioned.
The car swung around, slowing to a stop near the northern staircase. A few hearty pilgrims had braved the cold and were making their way up and down the Great Pyramid. Some wore regular clothing, but most were dressed in a variation of pilgrim attire: a cloak or robe or gown of red, green, blue, and black, their heads bare, their hands and faces painted.
A guard approached the car, stopping a short distance away. Sedgewick climbed out, tossing the jacket onto the seat behind him. Strapping his sword back into place as he walked, he moved towards the guard, spoke with him for a moment, then returned. He opened my door as Meritha climbed out from behind the wheel.
Without my having to ask, he held out his hand to me. “The Hag is expecting us.”
The interior of the Great Pyramid had been redesigned and rebuilt a dozen times in the last five centuries. It was not as large as the Pyramid that stood at the center of Theleia to the west, nor as old as the Pyramid in Charith to the north. But I thought it the most beautiful of all the Pyramids on this side of the continent; maybe on the whole continent.
The exterior color scheme continued inside, but was muted, softer and more subtle. The wide open floor space was a rainbow, like a child had dropped globs of watery paint: sunbursts of red running into patches of green, the green in turn sliding into blue and then black. Where the primary colors touched, others appeared: yellow, orange, purple, even white. The warm wood walls were plain, with only the grain of the wood showing through the light stain. Wooden benches and chairs with inviting off-white cushions were scattered around, as were life-size statues of famous necromancers and concession stands. People milled around, chatting into their phones or munching on sandwiches; we got a few curious glances, but were mostly ignored.
The scent of warm maple buns made my stomach rumble.
“You can eat in the elevator if you promise not to spill anything on your clothes,” Sedgewick said.
“Once. I did that once and you’ve never let me forget. Bathroom first.”
Meritha grinned, pulling her earmuffs down around her neck. They squished her scarf. “Oh, I remember that. Chocolate sauce. Good choice for impressing … who was it? The Four High Holy Orders?”
“Bathroom,” I growled.
“This way,” Sedgewick waved his hand towards an open doorway on the left wall. “Meritha, she’ll have one maple bun with extra walnuts and a bottle of milk.”
“I’m paying? Okay, I’m paying. In that case, I’ll get something for myself, too, but nothing for you.” With a half-bow, Meritha turned towards one of the concession stands while Sedgewick walked with me across the floor, close enough that I could feel the heat coming off his body even through his armor; my steps were slow, taking care not to aggravate my back, and he kept careful pace next to me.
I cleared my throat. “That was pretty impressive. I’ve never seen anyone’s eyes catch on fire like that.”
He touched my elbow, slowing me to a halt. He peered around me, through the open doorway, listening for a moment. Satisfied, he nodded and led me inside. “My eyes weren’t on fire. The air was super-heated. That happens sometimes.”
The wall curved around, opening onto the bathroom: stalls on one side, sinks on the other, with changing stations for infants along the back. The walls were covered in reliefs of lazy clouds and happy birds. A parent was trying to calm a fussy toddler, and I could hear someone else in one of the stalls. Otherwise, we were alone.
“When sometimes?” I asked.
He looked down at me, jaw tight. “When I’m angry.”
Meritha rejoined us a few minutes later at the bank of elevators further along the left wall. True to her word, she brought nothing for Sedgewick; she carried my maple bun and bottle of milk in one hand, and a fat butter pastry with chunky strawberry sauce in the other. There was already a bite in the pastry, and Meritha was licking strawberry sauce off her lips.
She cast a pointed look at Sedgewick as she handed the food over to me, but he ignored her.
A door pinged open. Sedgewick checked the interior, then waved me inside. He and Meritha followed. I dove into the maple bun, humming in delight, as Sedgewick tapped the button marked 25. The buttons turned white as we climbed, while the opposite numbers, leading down into the underground zoemantic half of the Great Pyramid, stayed dark.
Meritha took another bite. “Willow, I hear your sword is of the flaming variety.”
Sedgewick sighed. “Sometimes.”
“But only when he’s angry,” I explained around a mouthful of bun.
“Well, that’s disappointing. Won’t make our sparring session very memorable.”
“I apologize in advance for disappointing you.”
“Never say that to a lady.”
I choked on my maple bun. Sedgewick sighed again.
A pointless, silly, teasing conversation. Something to distract us from what had come before, and what we were about to face.
If I wasn’t careful, I would start laughing. The terror of the attack on the North Road had faded to a general anxiety and nervousness. The sugar from the maple bun had hit my bloodstream. I was edging towards hysterical.
I drew a calming breath and guzzled more milk.
The elevator neared its destination.
Another breath. Another slug of milk. I swallowed the last of the bun and quickly licked my fingers clean.
Meritha shoved the remaining pastry into her mouth and chewed quickly.
The elevator pinged. The doors slid open, revealing a wide reception area with a handful of desks. The floor here was multi-colored, as well, the walls warm wood and plain. A pair of carved doors filled the back wall. The assistant seated at the far desk looked up and stood as we approached; the other people in the room completely ignored us, focused on their laptops, stacks of books, and piles of paper.
“A blessed day to you, Tohra,” I said, only realizing after the fact that a clump of bun was stuck to my teeth. I scrubbed at it with my tongue.
Tohra pursed their lips at me, hands clasped. “Stand up straight. You could have bothered to put on formal robes. You’re not attending a street fair. You’re meeting with the Hag, one of the High Holy Orders.”
“Yep, and the longer you stand here trying to correct my posture and criticizing my dress, the longer she’ll be kept waiting.”
Tohra scowled at me. They sniffed and turned, moving towards the beautifully carved doors. A single knock, and they pushed open the doors with a light touch.
Cold winter sunlight spilled into the room through slanted windows. Multi-colored rugs and pillows covered the wooden floor. Shelves and pedestals and tables of wood and metal lined the walls, their surfaces filled with bones, claws, fangs, leather, fur, feathers, and wings. In the center of it all sat the Hag, nude, her long greying hair spilling over her shoulders, her fingers tipped with blood.
She smiled. “Come in, daughter. I’ve been waiting for you.”
[End Part Four. Part Five appears in the February 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.] i