[Want to start from the beginning? Here’s Part One, in the October 2020 issue of ev0ke.]
The elevator ride was completely silent. Even the gears barely squeaked.
The walk across the Pyramid’s multi-colored floor had been equally tense and quiet. Just after dawn, the only people out and about were a few Zoemancers, some administrative staff, and security guards. The novitiates, for the most part, wouldn’t drag themselves out of bed for at least another hour — or drag themselves back to bed after staying up all night studying and practicing their rites.
Now we were crammed into the elevator and descending slowly into the subterranean Pyramid. Taz and Kanady and I were shoved against the back wall, with Sedgewick, Operr, Dalis, and Meritha arrayed shoulder-to-shoulder in front of us. First Vigilant Armeia stood closest to the door, facing us, pink skull hood still in place.
It was a bizarre sort of stand-off. No one had hands on any weapons, but still —
“Oh!” Kanady snapped.
I jumped. Beside me, Taz gasped and pressed a hand to her chest.
Meritha swung her head around to raise an eyebrow, but the Vigilants didn’t even so much as twitch.
“Sorry.” Kanady blushed. “Just, um, remembered something.” They cleared their throat, bending towards me at a weird angle. “About that thing you asked me about earlier. When we were driving in.”
I blinked, trying to remember the conversation.
The Primal Names of the elements, the order of creation, the inverted Wheel of Unbecoming, ironwood.
My blink turned into a forced smile. “Glad to hear it. Let’s finish that conversation later, shall we?”
Kanady forced a smile in return and nodded. We both turned and smiled at Armeia. Taz just rolled her eyes.
The numbers continued to count down. The further we descended, the faster and harder my heart thudded in my chest.
I needed a distraction. I yanked off the hideous earmuffs and stuffed them into my pocket.
That took three seconds.
I took of my coat and folded it neatly over my clasped arms.
That took five seconds.
I watched the numbers. Light, dark, light, dark.
My back felt tight.
The elevator pinged and the doors slid open.
First Vigilant Armeia turned neatly on her heel and exited the elevator, striding across the Zoepolis towards the man who had summoned us.
I had only visited the lower levels of the Great Pyramid once. Immediately after my acceptance into seminary, a handful of promising (or well-connected) novitiates had been invited to attend the Rite of Rain and Seas. That autumn equinox had been particularly colorful, with the trees a riot of reds, golds, browns, and yellows, the orchards heavy with all manner of fruits. The celebration had reflected that. Everyone had been covered in dye and laughing, our faces painted, our hair drenched, color staining and dribbling down our robes.
Everyone except Grandfather Arcis. A frown of disapproval and impatience had never left his face.
That same expression greeted us now.
“Mmm,” Meritha hummed low.
Unlike my mother, who met us in the mess of her everyday office, the Grandfather stood at the far end of the formal Zoepolis. Whereas only the six High Holy Orders had access to the upper and lower peaks of the Great Pyramid and the tops of the four Elemental Temples, anyone could make use of the ritual Necropolis and Zoepolis; these were public spaces, where people could perform their own rites, pray, meditate, compose hymns and poems, dance, gather to speak and protest.
The direct elevators were guarded and password locked. The Zoepolis was a long hike up some very steep steps. The Necropolis was a long hike down.
That’s what a crowd of Petral refugees had been attempting to do last spring when they were intercepted by the Pyramid’s Vigilant security and a handful of Law and Enforcement Officers in the main entryway. After a brutal winter, when so many had died, they had come to the Pyramid to confront the High Holy Orders; to occupy the Necropolis and summon their dead to testify against the injustices done to them; to show the people of Egleia how they were suffering.
But there were guns and knives and shards of glass, screams and shouts and broken bones and blood. And when the refugees were finally forcibly cleared out — either returned to the camps or exiled beyond the city walls — two Officers were found dead.
If anyone had witnessed the crime, they refused to speak up. Instead, I had been called in to summon the Officers’ higher souls and gather their testimony.
Which had led to the bombing at the courthouse, and the deaths of Mykal and Grieta.
Any hope the refugees had of winning the sympathy of the people of Egleia had been lost after that. I still remembered lying in the hospital, staring at my phone in horror at the assaults, protests, calls for exile, and arson. One of the camps had been fire-bombed. Within a few days, several hundred refugees had “voluntarily” departed from Egleia, risking the month-long walk east to Taranz.
I shook my head, squared my shoulders against the twinge in my back, and pulled myself back to the present.
Sedgewick stepped out of the elevator first, followed by Meritha. Then Taz, Kanady, and I, with Operr and Dalis taking up the rear.
Our steps echoed on the dark green floor, the marble polished to a high gleam. I could see my reflection in the stone. My coat rustled against my skirt. The walls rose up at an angle, bending out as the Pyramid grew and spread above our heads, up through the earth. Lighter shades of green intertwined with reds and pinks and soft yellows in an abstract mosaic of the Creation: the four elements, the first ironwood tree, the four elemental creatures running and flying across the world. The first animals and the first people. The first cities and the first roads.
We stopped before Arcis and bowed, straightening slowly.
Sedgewick moved to one side, giving me an unobstructed view of the Grandfather.
His robes matched the colors of the chamber, and he leaned on a raw ironwood staff. In its natural, unworked state it looked less like the poles that ringed and enforced our house’s perimeter and more like a branch that had fallen from a tree.
At least I hoped that it had fallen off, and not been cut and hauled away by poachers.
“Necromancer duMar, daughter of the Hag; Necromancer Okura; Necromancer Rees; I welcome you to the Zoepolis.” His voice creaked and echoed around the room, and his eyes were redlined. His long white hair had been swept up into a waterfall of thin braids and draped over one shoulder, and the hand that clutched his ironwood staff was blue-veined and covered in spots.
“I thank you for your warm welcome, Zoemancer Arcis, Grandfather of Egleia. How may we be of service?”
“You have been the focus of several … disturbances, recently. A failed assassination attempt that left your First Vigilant and the fourth of your coven dead, as well as dozens of civilians injured. A second failed assassination attempt only yesterday when terrorists attacked your coven house, though they were stopped before they could cause any harm. And a third failed attempt in which dozens of innocent civilians — many pilgrims returning from Charith — were killed by a bomb apparently meant to distract and trap you. And then you, Necromancer duMar, have the audacity to disturb the sleeping dead of Lake Javith. Explain yourself.”
My heart was a loud thud-thud-thud in my ears, and hot anger filled the pit of my stomach. How dare —
I bit down on my tongue. He was the head of the Zoemancers, not the Necromancers. I owed him respect, not obedience.
And not even respect if he was hiding a crime as horrendous as the unmaking of an entire city.
I stifled the urge to challenge him, to question him, to yell and rant. Taking a half-step forward, I inhaled, tilted my chin up, and didn’t look away. “There is nothing to explain, Grandfather. You have summarized quite succinctly.”
Arcis made a dismissive sound, his lips pulling in. Beside him, Vigilant Armeia shifted subtly on her feet.
“Who is responsible for these attacks? Do you know? Who threatens my city and my people?”
My city, my people ….
Exhaustion and nerves tangled my tongue and the anger rose higher in my chest. Under cover of my jacket, my hands twisted and shook. I was going to yell at him, to demand the truth —
A light touch at my elbow as Kanady cleared their throat and moved up beside me. “We suspect a connection to Petreia, Grandfather.”
Arcis’ head reared back and he scowled harder. “Pah! That is not even a proper city aligned with the elements and directions, as the Creators intended. It does not deserve a name! It is nothing but shacks and trash.” He paced a few steps to the left, then the right, then back again as he spoke. “And what has that abomination to do with these incidents?”
I carefully pressed the side of my boot against Kanady’s shoe. Kanady shifted their foot, pressing back in reassurance.
“Revenge,” they continued. “Against Necromancer duMar for her involvement with the trial last spring.”
Grandfather Arcis stopped pacing. “Mmm.”
“We believe that the terrorists are working with refugees here in Egleia,” Meritha said, her words smooth. “With permission from the Office of Law and Enforcement, and the Guild of Necromantic Vigilants, First Vigilant Sedgewick and I will be leading a raid into the camps. We will find those responsible, and hold them accountable. Such flagrant attacks upon the sovereignty of Egleia cannot be allowed to stand. Don’t you agree?”
I bit my tongue again, pushing down on the anger. I kept my expression still, very aware that Grandfather Arcis was watching.
Apparently I had been paying attention all those times I saw Mother doing the same.
“Mmm.” Arcis turned away, his steps slow as he moved towards the far side of the Zoepolis, then turned and came back towards us again. “And if you should find evidence that … Petreia … is involved?”
“The Office of Law and Enforcement and the Guild of Necromantic Vigilants will coordinate with the rangers to the south to, um, clean out Petreia once and for all. Necromancers duMar, Okura, and Rees will remain in their coven house — behind extra security — until we have completed the operation and we’re certain that the threat has been eliminated.” Her jaw tightened. “I was present at the courthouse. My friends were murdered, others injured. I don’t want to bury anyone else.”
The Grandfather nodded slowly. “I commend your patriotism, and your desire for justice, Officer Javes. I will speak with the other High Holy Orders. When the time comes, you and your fellow officers and Vigilants will be granted passage through the Southern Gate.” He turned, addressing me and only me. “Necromancer duMar, your well-being is vital to the well-being of Egleia. Do not risk yourself further. Remain in your coven house. Practice your rites. Pray. Meditate on the Creators and the elements. When it is safe to do so, resume your duties.”
My tongue was beginning to hurt and my face felt stiff and hot. My knuckles ached from squeezing my fingers together.
I dipped my head. “Yes, Grandfather. I will, Grandfather.”
He clacked his staff against the marble, and we were dismissed.
First Vigilant Armeia rode back up in the elevator with us. It was quiet again, but the silence was different. There was a tinge of excitement to it; like sneaking in and out of the house, and then lying about it to your parents, and you weren’t sure if they believed you or not.
The doors slid open, revealing the entryway of the Great Pyramid. It was much busier now, with novitiates snagging breakfast from the food carts, petitioners settling down on the couches and chairs, and staff plopping down behind their desks.
How long had we been down in the Necropolis?
Armeia turned neatly on her heel again, exited, and then moved to the side to wave us into the lobby. I followed Sedgewick and Meritha, Kanady and Taz to either side once we had squeezed through the door.
The smell of maple buns hit my nose. My mouth immediately began to water and my stomach growled loudly. I looked around, trying to find the right cart.
Instead, my gaze snagged on a figure near the door to the restrooms.
Tohra, my mother’s loyal assistant.
They made a weird face at me, twitched, and ducked stiffly into the bathroom.
“Pee!” I blurted, then flushed when everyone turned to look at me. Sedgewick quirked an eyebrow. “I need to use the facilities.”
He nodded. “Very well.”
Our little cohort pivoted and started towards the far wall. A few novitiates gave us curious looks, and Armeia’s eyes narrowed behind her mask, her steps reluctant as she followed along.
We stopped at the wide open doorway. Sedgewick entered alone. I got another whiff of maple and my stomach grumbled even louder.
“Would you like me to fetch some nourishment while you’re making use of the facilities?” Meritha asked, a wry edge clinging to her words.
“Yes, please, that would be awesome.”
“Something blackberry for me,” Taz piped up. “I have a mad craving.”
“Pancakes,” Kanady said. “See if anyone has pancakes in a cup. No syrup, lots of blueberries.”
“Ohh, that sounds good, too,” Taz breathed.
“Too late. You placed your order. Anyone else?” She looked around.
Ever the professionals, Operr and Dalis didn’t even acknowledge her question.
Meritha clapped her hands together. “Right. Back in a few. Don’t leave without me.” She spun and tromped away.
Armeia was still frowning behind her mask.
Sedgewick reappeared around the long curve of the doorway. “All clear. You may proceed.”
I threw him a smile and entered the bathroom.
He followed me.
Of course he followed me.
I stopped and stared around the completely empty room. Gleaming sinks to the right, changing stations ahead, urinals and stalls to the left.
Sedgewick leaned close, his breath misting across my ear. “Last one.”
I shivered, cleared my throat, and proceeded down the left wall. The door of the end stall was closed. I cleared my throat again, and lifted a hand out from beneath my jacket to knock lightly.
A pause, and the lock disengaged. The door swung open a crack and Tohra peered out at me; only one narrowed eye was visible. They looked me up and down, then swung open the door a bit more.
“This is undignified,” they hissed. “Demeaning. Embarrassing.”
I nodded slowly. “Yep.”
Tohra rolled their shoulders and opened the door further. “But who am I to question the Hag.” They reached into a pocket and pulled out a small, wrapped rectangular package. “She was adamant that I give this to you, and only you.”
I took the rectangle and slipped it beneath my coat, grasping it between my hands. It felt like a book, but was only slightly bigger than my palm.
“Thank you, Tohra.”
They thinned their lips at me. “You’re slouching again.” Then they closed the door and engaged the lock.
I automatically straightened, then shook my head at my own ingrained response. When I turned to exit the restroom, I saw a quick smile flitter across Sedgewick’s face and then disappear. I narrowed my eyes at him. He quirked an eyebrow and followed me out of the room, around the curve of the hallway, to the wide open door.
Meritha awaited us, food held aloft. Kanady was digging into their pancake in a cup, fork loaded down with blueberries and doughy goodness. Taz was moaning over some kind of pastry slathered with blackberry jam.
A steaming maple scone awaited me, and I somehow managed to juggle my coat in such as way as to keep the package hidden, but also latch onto the food.
Armeia still trailing us, we exited the Great Pyramid, munching and moaning and chewing loudly.
I had inhaled my maple scone and was licking my fingers before we reached the Eastern Temple of Thueta. As we pulled into the tunnel, the reliefs of the grass tortoises still looking sad and wise, I leaned forward.
“Are you really planning to raid the refugee camps?”
Meritha glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Kind of have to. Don’t worry. We’ll put on a good show.”
“Raiding the camps will destroy any chance I have of finding someone willing to talk to me.”
“Then we go now. Today,” Sedgewick said. He turned away from the window, gaze dropping to study my skirt and sweater and the shiny clip that held up my hair.
I felt myself squirming in my seat.
“But you can’t go as yourself.”
“In … disguise?” I frowned. “Disguised — oh.”
Meritha chuckled. “So far today I have been attacked by an ice cream-addicted feline, summoned into the lair of a deadly enemy, lied to said enemy’s face, and somehow walked out alive. Now we get to sneak into a camp full of refugees, blend in, ask some questions, and get out again without either the angry refugees or the murderous members of a murderous conspiracy murdering us.” She glanced at me in the mirror again, her eyes practically gleaming. “I have so much fun working with you.”
[End Part Ten. Part Eleven will appear in the August issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]