At this time of year, the apiary was deserted. The bees were tucked away in their hives, sound asleep. The shrubs that would flower in the spring were little more than bumps in the soil, and the trees were bare of leaves. No workers in protective gear, no citizens taking tours, no clusters of school children on field trips.

The market stall beside the road was boarded up. Two wheeled stands that would be filled with jars of glistening honey in a few months were tucked up against the side of the building, and the small gravel parking lot was empty.

We waited at the back of the lot, crouched among the naked trees.

Not an ideal spot, but better than standing on the side of the road.

An hour passed. Sedgewick knelt in front of me, shielding me from view. I huddled up against his back, absorbing every ounce of heat.

Another half an hour, and I heard the crunch of tires and a vehicle slowly approaching. I peeked over Sedgewick’s shoulder, catching sight of Meritha’s car as it pulled slowly into the lot and began to circle around.

When he stood, I followed suit. He held out a hand, motioning for me to stay, and stepped out of the trees and onto the gravel. 

The car accelerated, pulling around so that the driver’s side faced us.

The window dropped and Meritha glowered out at us. “Will you get in already?!”

I scrambled forward, sliding into the back seat as soon as Sedgewick opened the door. He climbed in behind me and pulled it shut. Meritha stamped down on the accelerator, pushing me into the cushions. Sedgewick moved me bodily into position and helped me plug in my seatbelt.

“That was a complete shit show,” Meritha snarled. “I have been involved in some serious shit shows in my life, but that — hand’s down — was the worst. Whole damn thing fell apart from the word go. Derien and the other Officers seemed to be following a completely different set of orders. And what the fuck was up with the Vigilants? They weren’t questioning anyone. No arrests. Just beatdowns and setting things on fire. Fucking stupid. Stupid.”

She fell silent. I could see how tightly she gripped the steering wheel, how she was keeping her face averted from the rear view mirror.

“How many?” I asked. “How many dead?”

She cleared her throat. “Twenty-three, that I know of.”

I drew a deep breath, blinking away tears. My voice cracked. “And the Hag?”

Meritha shrugged. “A coven of necromancers has been dispatched to the camp, but I’m not sure they’ll even be able to get through the front gate. When I left, Othinith had gathered up everyone that she could inside and barricaded the entrance.” Her hands twisted on the steering wheel. “Things just got much, much worse.”

Silence filled the vehicle.

We passed the last of the apiaries and orchards, entering the outer ring of residences.

Sedgewick pulled off his knit hat, his hair frizzing, and threw his fingerless gloves onto the floor at his feet. “You said that the Necromantic Vigilants were actively attacking refugees and destroying structures?”

“Oh, yeah. Yep.” Meritha nodded, pulling onto the curving road that would eventually take us back to the coven house. “They came fully armed and loaded. Shotguns, rifles, pistols, ironwood swords and knives, flash-bangs, gas canisters. They were looking to have a grand old time. You two better start changing.”

After a confused moment, I looked around, finally spotting our discarded uniforms tied into bundles in the back. I reached over the seat to pull them out as Sedgewick continued, “They never would have acted like that unless instructed to do so. They were following orders.”

Meritha finally glanced at us in the mirror. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. “So cross the First Marshal of the Necromantic Vigilants off our list of potential allies?”

“For now,” Sedgewick agreed. “Until we can determine if she is actively involved in the cover-up, or is just being lied to and manipulated.” 

He lifted in the seat, shucking off his ratty pants, and began to attach the pieces of his armor. I half-watched, following his lead in how to assemble my uniform while also trying not to stare at the nice display of flexing muscles.

Focus.

I pulled off my own awful clothes, now covered in mud and water and stinking of tear gas and smoke. They tumbled to the floor, adding to the growing pile. “We need to leave tomorrow.”

Sedgewick attached the cuirass, hiding his clotted chest wound. “We may not have permission from the High Holy Orders to leave by tomorrow.”

“What if we left without permission?”

Meritha grunted. “Doable, but tricky. We’d have to head out through the Eastern Gate or Western Gate. In disguise, again. Then swing around and travel through wilderness to get to the Southern Road. There aren’t any unaligned communities in that area, not like there are to the north. Just poachers, Rangers, grass tortoises, and maybe a roq or two. It’ll take a lot longer to get to Petral, and be a lot more dangerous.”

Sedgewick attached a piece of armor to his sleeve, then reached over to help me adjust a leg piece. “This is upside down. If necessary, we can get a special dispensation from just the Hag.”

“But then they’ll know that she’s helping us,” I protested.

“You’re her daughter, Alys.” Meritha cranked the wheel, turning onto our residential street. “Unless they’re idiots — and they’re not — they’re already damned suspicious.” She paused. “Look, we don’t actually know how many of the High Holy Orders are currently, actively involved in the cover-up. The generation from the war eighty years ago? Probably all of them. Now?” Meritha shrugged. “It might well be only the Grandfather. In which case, he’ll probably play along for as long as possible, try to manipulate the situation to keep the truth buried.”

“And if it’s not just the Grandfather? If it’s all of the High Holy Orders?”

Meritha sighed, her glance darting to me in the rearview mirror, and then away. “Then your mom is in some deep shit, and has been for a long time.”

***

By the time we arrived at the coven house, I had managed to assemble my uniform — Dalis’ uniform — with Sedgewick’s assistance. After the upside down leg piece, he made no further comments on my lackluster abilities, instead just silently correctly my mistakes. He even slipped Dalis’ belt with the twin daggers around my waist, his fingers brushing against my belly as he clicked it into position. 

I fought down a blush, then blushed even harder when he attached the chest plate. I felt his breath ghost across my ear and cheek, and looked up to see that one corner of his mouth had quirked up in a smile.

But then Meritha pulled onto the driveway, swinging around to pull up in front of the porch.

Operr and another Vigilant were still by the front door. Other Vigilants walked the perimeter fence.

Sedgewick’s almost-smile disappeared. He reached up and tugged the hood and mask down over my face. 

Meritha clicked off the engine, cast a quick glance of confirmation at us, and then shoved open her door. She slammed it shut so hard that the vehicle rocked. I flinched, following Sedgewick out the door, then preceding him up the steps.

I had no idea if that was the correct protocol. I didn’t care. I spoke the word — “Achiya” — to open the ironwood door and stepped inside. I just wanted to get in the house, strip off the uniform, and shower. Then cry. Then eat a huge bowl of ice cream. Then cry some more.

Behind me, I heard Sedgewick speak “Chiya” and the ironwood popped back into existence.

A rite. I should go down to the necropolis in the basement and perform a rite of remembrance and peace. I couldn’t direct it to any specific higher souls, not without names or direct access to those souls, but I could at least do this much —

Taz slammed into me, her arms wrapping tight, her hair flying into my eyes and tickling me through the mask. She squeezed hard.

No chatter, no exclamations of surprise or concern. Just a silent, desperate hug.

Over her shoulder, I could see Kanady glaring at me, their arms crossed. A few steps to their side, Dalis watched us all, expression neutral.

I managed to finagle one arm free and pushed the mask up and onto the top of my head. “That did not go as planned,” I croaked.

“Yeah, we know.” Kanady held up their phone. It was muted, but the screen jumped with staticky video. 

The refugee camp. People running, tripping, stepping on one another. Shelters falling. Buildings on fire. A woman fell, her chest spraying blood. 

I swallowed hard, breathing carefully.

“This has been running the last couple of hours.” Kanady spun their phone back around, fingers dancing across the keys. “New videos keep getting uploaded, taken down, and loaded again. They’re getting copied and passed around.”

“What’s the official explanation?” Meritha moved around me, tossing her coat onto the rack by the door. It fell to the floor. She huffed, bent down to pick it up, and tried to toss it into the rack again. It tumbled to the floor. She gave the coat a savage kick, sending it hurtling against the wall, and stomped past Kanady and Dalis into the kitchen.

Kanady turned to follow her. “Officially officially, the refugees from Petral rioted when their request to move more of their people into the labor force was declined.”

Shifting Taz to the side, I stumbled to follow, straining to listen. Taz came along, clinging to my arm, still too silent. I ignored Dalis’ cocked eyebrow as she surveyed her armor and the lousy way I wore it.

“Unofficially officially, word is getting around that Egleian Law and Enforcement Officers raided the camp in search of the individuals responsible for the bus bombing on the North Road yesterday morning. The voices calling for all of the refugees to be exiled or imprisoned — regardless of health, age, or birth status — are getting louder and greater in number. If the High Holy Orders don’t act, I get the distinct impression that the citizenry will.”

I grimaced, remembering the horrors of the previous spring. “Just like they did after the bombing at the courthouse.”

Kanady nodded.

Catching movement out of the corner of my eye, I turned my head and saw Sedgewick leading Dalis into his room. He directed a quick shake of his head at me, and clicked the door shut.

Meritha grunted, and I turned my attention back to her. She was hauling every tub of ice cream out of the freezer and dumping them on the counter. Little flakes of frost broke off the containers and skittered across the wood, only to stop and rapidly melt; the counter was quickly covered in blotches of water. “They’re laying the groundwork. Unofficially officially spreading rumors and innuendo and half-truths,” she said, ripping open a drawer to pull out a handful of spoons. “Making sure that whatever information you learned in the camp — and I sure as fuck hope that you learned something useful — will be called into question by the public. Can’t believe anything these Petralans say. They’re all terrorists. Only they’ll be a bit more subtle about it. Phrase it more elegantly. Fuck.” She shoved a spoonful of black raspberry ice cream into her mouth and scowled at her own words.

Silence settled over the kitchen. Kanady continued to study their phone, fingers moving as they toggled through videos and over comment threads. Taz clung to my arm, her head pressed hard against my shoulder. I realized that she was shaking.

“We did,” I said. 

They all looked up at me, even Taz.

“We did learn something useful. Something awful.” I grimaced again and tugged at the bodysuit and armor. “I need to get out of this. Clean it. Clean myself.”

Meritha pointed her spoon at me. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Thirty.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine. But there won’t be any of this deliciousness left by then. You’ll just have to make do.” She shoved another big spoonful into her mouth, her cheeks bulging.

Taz cleared her throat and finally spoke. Her voice was soft and cracked. “I’ll help.”

She took my hand and led me out of the kitchen and through the dining room.

The door to Sedgewick’s bedroom was still closed. I couldn’t hear anything.

Through the living room, up the stairs to my bedroom at the back of the house. My legs protested the climb. 

I found Cha-Cha sound asleep on my pillow, happily absorbing the late afternoon sun. She cracked open one eye as we entered, then turned her head and went back to sleep.

Taz quietly closed the door, and then enveloped me in another desperate hug. She was shaking even harder now. “I was so scared,” she whispered. Her voice was rough, sticking in her throat. “I was so scared, Alys. I was afraid that you would be killed, that you were already dead and that I just hadn’t heard your higher soul calling because I’m not a strong enough necromancer.” 

She was crying now, her face pressed into my shoulder. My arms were around her, and I was crying, too — for her, for me, for Sedgewick, for Inirin and Eregrin and Lal Rithin and Othinith and everyone. Everyone. Everyone who had been hurt or killed or was cold or afraid now because of a stupid war eighty years ago and the stupid cowards who murdered a dragon and the stupid cowards who were now trying to hide the crime.

Stupid. All so stupid.

I wasn’t sure how long we cried, just holding one another.  

Cha-Cha jumped down from the bed and wound around our legs, mewing a question.

Taz moved back half a step, hiccuping. She scrubbed the tears off her cheeks, then gripped the armor around my upper arms. “You’re my best friend Alys. You and Kanady. The two people I love most in this world. Promise me that you won’t put yourself in danger like that again. That I won’t have to worry that your soul is wandering, lost and afraid and angry.”

I sniffed and shook my head. “No.” I drew a deep breath. “I won’t make that promise, because I might break it. I’ll probably break it. We have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few days, weeks. Longer. But we know that someone is trying to kill us — me — and that there is a conspiracy to cover up a terrible crime. Do you really think that they — whoever they are — won’t do everything in their power to keep that crime hidden?”

She bit the inside of her lip. Her eyes dropped, then she nodded once and looked back up at me again. “Then you need to hurry up and change. You learned something at the camp, but Kanady and I found something in the library, too.”

***

Taz helped peel me out of the armor. I reeked of mud and sweat and tear gas. She wrinkled her nose as she bundled the armor together, then hefted the whole thing in her arms.

“I’ll help Dalis clean this. We’ll be waiting for you downstairs.”

I nodded, gathered my most comfortable sweatshirt and baggy pants and poofy socks, and locked myself in the bathroom.

I cried some more in the shower.

When I finally emerged, I was clean, wrinkly, warm, and exhausted. The only illumination that came through the frosted window was from the light spells. The sun had set. The day was over, and we still had so much to do.

I pulled on my comfy clothes and left my hair down to dry on its own.

Towel in hand, I headed downstairs. I could smell toast and eggs and spicy sausage. I was only halfway down the steps, however, when Sedgewick appeared around the edge of the railing and stopped by the sealed front door.

He had showered and changed into his civilian attire: jeans, a t-shirt, boots, one pistol in a shoulder holster. He looked up at me. “Company. First Zoemantic Vigilant Carys Armeia.”

I descended the last few steps. “Think she’s carrying a travel pass from the Grandfather and the High Holy Orders?”

He opened his mouth to answer, but was stopped by a knock at the ironwood door. He waited, one eyebrow raised.

There was a clinking sound from the dining room. When I looked over, I saw Taz laying out the dishes and silverware. Kanady had a heaping plate of cheesy garlic toast in one hand, and a bowl filled with fluffy eggs in the other. They both looked solemn; scared, but determined.

There was no sign of Meritha or Dalis. Hiding somewhere.

Another knock.

I turned back around and nodded.

Sedgewick pressed his hand to the ironwood. “Achiya.”

It popped into nothingness.

First Vigilant Armeia stood on the front porch, Operr a few steps behind her. She did not look amused at the escort. Her garish pink skull hood draped over the back of her collar. Her lips were pressed into a thin line, and the corner of one eye twitched.

She bowed. “Necromancer duMar. On behalf of the Grandfather and the High Holy Orders, I present you with your travel pass, valid as of dawn tomorrow.” She thrust a roll of parchment across the threshold. It was wrapped in four ribbons, black and red and green and blue, and sealed with wax in matching colors.

Sedgewick took the parchment from her and broke it open. He glanced at it quickly, then passed it back to me.

I unrolled it, my eyes skimming. The text was handwritten and elegant.

The High Holy Orders of Egleia do hereby grant passage through the South Gate, to those territories beyond our walls, including but not limited to the city that was once Petral; to Necromancer Alys duMar, Necromancer Taz Okura, Necromancer Kanady Rees, and those parties whom they consider necessary; effective sunrise on the 324th day of the 622nd year of our great city, the city of Egleia.

Grandfather Arcis, Zoemancer

Hag duMar, Necromancer

Geomancer Sakal

Pyromancer Lirawick

Hydromancer Gardith

Anemancer Reeth

I let the scroll tumble closed on its own, clasping it loosely in my hands. “Thank you, First Vigilant. You may relay to the Grandfather that you have carried out your duty.”

She bowed again. “I shall see you in the morning.” 

“What?” The question came out as a startled blurt.

Armeia smiled. “Despite the obvious danger, the Hag was quite … insistent … that the three of you be allowed to leave the safety of your coven house, and the city itself. She convinced the other High Holy Orders, but the Grandfather, out of concern for you, only relented on condition that a company of Zoemantic Vigilants led by myself accompany you. For your safety and protection.”

“… How considerate of him.”

She was still smiling. “You are looking very clean, Necromancer duMar. Did you do something earlier to get dirty?”

I smiled, too. “A ritual cleansing. In preparation for a rite of remembrance and peace.”

Her eyebrows jumped. “A rite in honor of the Petralans?”

I didn’t realize that I had moved forward until I was suddenly even with Sedgewick and I could feel the heat coming off his body. “I am a necromancer, First Vigilant. It is the Hag’s duty to pray and perform rites specifically for the citizens of Egleia — but it is the duty of every necromancer, no matter where or when, to pray and perform rites for any higher soul, for every higher soul. This is our blessing, our calling, our oath to the Creators: to care for the dead.” I leaned closer, my voice dropping. “Now kindly depart my home, First Vigilant. I have Work to do.”

Her eyelid twitched.

Then I turned my back on her, and walked away.            

[End Part Fifteen. Part Sixteen appears in the February 2022 issue of ev0ke.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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