Image courtesy of Shahin Khalaji on Unsplash

I pulled on a robe and headed downstairs for breakfast. The Grandfather’s summons had been for after the dawn rite. We still had time.

There was no sign of Sedgewick in the living room, dining area, or kitchen. His bedroom door was still closed.

I paused next to the dining room table.

I hadn’t been in that room since it was still Grieta’s. By the time I returned from the hospital, all of her things had been removed and Sedgewick had already settled in.

Drawing a breath, I took the last few steps and knocked on his door.

Nothing.

I was about to turn away when the door opened.

Sedgewick stood in front of me, half-dressed. The black body suit of his formal armor hung open around his hips, his boots were only partially laced up, and his hair was still wet.

I tried not to stare, failed, and eventually yanked my gaze up, down, back up, to find his gaze in return. He looked … stoic. Again. Back to the Sedgewick I knew.

I cleared my throat, bouncing slightly on my toes and gesturing towards his wet hair. “You were up early. Doesn’t look like any of us got any sleep last night.”

He pivoted on one heel, waving an arm to invite me inside. “I’ve had enough. I only need a few hours. Vigilant training involves meditation and compressed sleep time.”

I tried not to look like I was looking around, even though I was looking around: a good-sized bed with a crazy quilt and built in storage; old wooden nightstand; old wooden armoire, taller than Sedgewick; and a small personal shrine with rocks, feathers, ash, and a bowl of water. Shining armor pieces and two — two — swords were laid out on the quilt. “I remember once when Grieta stayed awake for four days. Some kind of fifteen minute meditation every few hours and she was fine.”

“Vigilant Tol was a legend. I believe her record was eighty-nine hours. Of course, then she collapsed and slept for three days.”

He moved back towards the bed, leaving the door open. Was I sorry that he hadn’t closed it? Yes? No?

“Now you have two swords.”

He tilted his head towards the armoire. “Actually, I have five.”

“Sorry, five?” 

His mouth twitched in an almost-smile. He pulled the top half of his bodysuit into place, his arms and chest flexing. The edges self-sealed down the middle of his torso, the seam invisible. He waved a hand, indicating the armoire again.

I crossed the small room and swung open the matching doors. 

“Wow. Okay.”

The inside panel of each door was heavy with sharp, shiny objects. Long swords, short swords, daggers, knives, darts, staves with retractable pointy ends. Drawers filled the bottom half of the armoire; above, along the back, were guns. Lots of guns, big and little, automatic and semi-automatic, and a few I couldn’t identify.

“That’s … impressive.”

The bed creaked and I turned to watch as Sedgewick sat to finish lacing his boots and attach the greaves. The metal-ceramic plates adhered to the fabric on his legs immediately, with no need for straps or snaps or buttons. Grieta had mentioned something once about ironwood thread in the fabric, but refused to go into details. Vigilant secrets.

“If Meritha asks nicely, I might let her borrow something.”

“I’m sure that one of these eight hundred guns would make her very happy.”

He sighed. “Most likely. Not that I’ve actually seen her use one outside of target practice.”

I opened my mouth, closed it. “You’re right. I haven’t either.”

He didn’t look up as I wandered away from the armoire, past the open door and the shrine, in a wide circle towards the bed. I ran my fingertips over the quilt, enjoying the texture and color.

“Did you make this?”

“No.” He straightened. “My brother did.” He twisted and reached for a gauntlet, and wrapped it around his left forearm. “I did make my armor, however.”

I picked up the other gauntlet; cool and smooth. I held it out to him, my fingers brushing the back of his hand. “I didn’t know that. Do all Vigilants make their own armor?”

Darkness flickered in his eyes.

Fire.

His voice was rough when he answered. “The Necromantic Orders, yes. If we’re to repair our armor, we need to know how it’s made.”

The large cuirass was next. I tilted it towards the grey light coming in through the window. A faint quadruple triangle was etched into the very center of the chest piece: one large triangle with three smaller ones embedded inside of it. Pointed upright. A two dimensional representation of the Necropolis of the Great Pyramid, invisible unless light touched it at just the right angle.

What had the Zoemantic Vigilant’s name been? Armeia. There would be a downward quadruple triangle on her armor. Opposite, but identical, reflecting the interconnectedness of life and death; death before life, life after death; life feeding life through death.

Armeia was First Vigilant to Arcis. Grandfather of the High Holy Orders. The overseer of all zoemancers in Egleia. Dear to the Creators. Beloved of Mothers and Fathers and Parents everywhere, for it was his blessings that called the four elements together, creating the form in which a higher soul could evolve and flourish and live.

Conspirator? Liar? Murderer? Anathema to the Creators, due to the sin that he had helped to perpetuate? 

I realized that I had been standing there, silent, for much too long. I smiled apologetically, and handed over the cuirass. Sedgewick returned the smile, fixing the armor in place. Then the back plate, and the upper arm guards, with the shoulder pauldrons last. 

He stood, looking down at me.

I looked up at him.

His eyes were darker.

Yes. Yes, I wish that he had closed the door.

Sedgewick lifted a hand, one finger tracing the curve of my cheek. 

I pressed my palm to the center of his chest. I could just barely feel the quadruple triangle. Lifting up onto my toes, I tilted my head back and felt Sedgewick’s lips settle over my mouth, gentle at first, then more insistent —

“Oh! Sharp shinies!”

I jerked back, landing hard on my heels. Sedgewick dropped his hand, his fingers curling into a fist. I could feel the flush spreading across my cheeks and throat.

Meritha breezed into the room, hair still wet, heading straight for the open armoire. Humming, fingers dancing, she studied every single sword, dagger, stave, and gun in the cabinet. Her back still to us, she made an “ah!” in satisfaction and snatched two small daggers and a matching belt from the inside left door panel.

Sedgewick sighed. “Ask nicely.”

Meritha slipped the two daggers into horizontal sheaths that lined the back of the belt, then wrapped and buckled it around her waist. She bounced, shifting the belt. “Please I’m taking these thanks much.”

Spinning on her heel, Meritha waggled a finger at me. “You, upstairs, shower, clothes. We leave in fifteen.” 

I mumbled a yes and exited Sedgewick’s bedroom as quickly as I could. I didn’t look back when I heard it close behind me.

***

Twenty minutes later, our convoy was headed down the road. The houses of our neighborhood were still and silent, roofs changing color as the dawn brightened and the sun rose higher in the sky. The streets were almost equally silent, only a few delivery trucks marking the very start of the day.

I sat in the back seat of one heavy duty vehicle, Meritha at the wheel, Sedgewick beside me; the security partition was rolled down so that she could listen. Kanady rode in the car ahead with Dalis at the wheel and a second Vigilant up front, window in place. Taz sat in the car behind, with Operr driving and another Vigilant in the passenger seat; Operr had seemed flattered and more than a little embarrassed when we welcomed him back, but he was adamant that he was fully recovered from the attack on the North Road and that he was ready to get back to work. 

I had dug my semi-formal winter wear from the far end of my closet: long, layered dark blue skirt; long-sleeved black sweater; high-heeled black boots; and fancy black leather and satin jacket. Taz had even pulled my hair up into twist as she followed me down the stairs, fixing it with a glittering blue clip. The effect was probably spoiled by the fuzzy florescent green ear muffs that Meritha had insisted on loaning me (why she carried multiple pairs, I had no idea), but I didn’t care. 

“It’s in chapter eight of Klyde’s Essays on the First Tongue.” 

Kanady’s voice echoed up from my phone, held flat in my hand. Their voice was low; hopefully low enough that their protective detail couldn’t hear them through the partition. I could feel Sedgewick listening, even as he kept his gaze firmly fixed outside the vehicle, watching for any threat.

I shook my head. “I don’t think I’ve read that since seminary.”

Taz snorted. “I barely remember it. Isn’t that the really really long chapter where he discusses the Primal Names of the elements and how those relate to later words for, like, pyramid or something?”

“You have a terrible memory.”

Taz huffed.

“No,” Kanady continued, “it’s the chapter in which he discusses the Primal Names of the elements and the order of creation —”

“Oh!” I straightened suddenly. “That’s why the Wheel of Unbecoming is reversed!”

The Greater Powers were simultaneously the elements and more than the four elements. They had existed in harmonious balance since before time, before creation. When the Creators set out to make the world, Thueta, Earth of the East, was first. Material reality, the foundation upon which everything else could be built. Then Isiya, Fire of the South, the sun, the stars, the hearth, the heart, warming creation and filling it with light. Then Khura, Water of the West, blood and sea and river and rain, to nourish the earth. And last, Osira, Wind of the North, the breath, the voice, the intellect, the breeze to carry seeds and sounds and ideas. 

“Exactly,” Kanady confirmed. “That’s why the name of creation — lathysidai — is spoken at every seasonal rite, and why the Wheel of Unbecoming is a corrupted elemental altar.”

Meritha lifted a hand in an impatient hurry up wave.

“Now,” Kanady continued, “what’s the other exception to the order of creation?”  

“Ironwood,” Taz answered. “Every element in perfect balance, a reflection of the Creators.”

Sedgewick turned towards me, frowning. In the front seat, Meritha glanced up, squinting in the rearview mirror.

Our convoy exited the neighborhood, turning left to head west on the East Road; away from the East Gate and towards downtown and the Great Pyramid. Clusters of houses quickly gave way to small businesses and schools, still quiet and dark even as the sky brightened noticeably overhead.

My fingers tightened around my phone. “You’re saying … what? That ironwood is part of the Wheel of Unbecoming?”

“I think ….” Kanady paused. They cleared their throat. I could almost see them scrubbing their hand through their hair, collecting their thoughts. “I think that’s why it’s different this time. When a Wheel of Unbecoming is completed, when it’s performed ‘properly,’ there’s nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Whoever these people are, they took a Primal Rite and twisted it, figured out some way to destroy a higher soul but leave a body intact. Something is keeping that body upright and functional. And the only thing that I can think of that might maybe be able to do that is ironwood.”

In the front seat, Meritha yanked her phone from her pocket, hit a single button, and pressed the phone to her ear. 

I bit my tongue, trying to remember the exact position of the Wheel near the Skiya River. “How close were we to the ironwood grove?”

“To that particular grove?” Sedgewick tapped a finger on his leg. “Half a day’s walk. Probably less.”

No wonder Meritha, and the rangers who first found the site, had assumed they were the missing ironwood poachers.

Maybe they had been the poachers, sacrificed to the Wheel and to a terrible plan for vengeance.

“Hey, Varney, it’s Javes. Yes, shut up. Listen, I need you to the pull the bodies from Case #14556 and #14557. Yeah, those. Well, then get them back. I need you to look for ironwood.” She half twisted in the seat, lowering the phone so she could snap over her shoulder, “Kanady, how much ironwood are we talking about?”

“I have absolutely no idea. Something between a sliver and a full tree.”

“Not helpful,” Meritha muttered, and flipped her phone back into position. “Yes, ironwood. Any piece, no matter how small. Check all the bodies, the vehicles, and go back and check each scene if you have to. Text me if you find anything, got it? What? No, I haven’t forgotten. I’ll pick up the new coffee maker later. Sometime. Toodles.”

She shoved her phone back into her jacket.

Outside the vehicle, the businesses and schools had been replaced by skyscrapers. More cars, as well as buses and trucks, now filled the road around us. It wasn’t a traffic jam yet, but it soon would be. Straight ahead, the Eastern Temple of Thueta loomed above the road, a brilliant green. Beyond that, the colorful sides of the Great Pyramid shimmered, colors swirling into one another.

Kanady cleared their throat. “Nobody’s forgotten that there’s an ironwood grove near Petral, right?”

“Within spitting distance of Petreia.” Meritha grimaced, slowing the vehicle as we neared the Eastern Temple. “The refugees couldn’t resettle in the grove itself. Cervitaurs wouldn’t allow it, and it’s not like there’s anything there to eat. So, if the villains are using ironwood in their corrupted rite, that might be where they’re acquiring it. Because, it’s likely a safe bet that the people who stayed near Petral rather moving to another city and integrating —”

“Might be a bit more radical and inclined to pervert a Primal Rite,” Taz finished. 

Sedgewick grunted.

The Temple rose above us, up and up, too high for me to see the top this close. Whereas Osira’s Northern Temple recalled wind, Thueta’s evoked earth. Twin dragons framed the archway on either side of the road, bodies stretched, snouts touching, horns curved back over their heads; not reptile, not mammal, not plant, but something wholly unique. Their dark green hides were covered with slightly lighter green fur that looked like grass. Flower buds and full blooms sprouted randomly across their meadowy fur, and clustered at the tips of the dragons’ wolf-like ears. Their furry tails curled into loops beneath their rear paws. They bared their teeth in ferocious grins, the single eye that could be seen gleaming a green so dark that it was almost black.

I pressed my face to the window, leaning against the glass to get a better look at the nearest dragon.

That same tickle, like the one that had told me that something about the order of the elements was key; it had bugged me as I was falling asleep on our drive up the North Road only — well, yesterday morning. It seemed longer ago than that.

… Kanady had figured it out ….

“Kanady, have you come across any connection between dragons and the order of creation and the Wheel of Unbecoming?”

“Uh.” There was a puzzled pause. “They were first? Pure earth given form? Thueta’s favored creation?” Another pause as Kanady seemed to organize their thoughts.

The convoy continued forward, a guard waving us through. The interior of the tunnel was carved with trees and branches and leaves; hundreds of different species. Seeds and flowers, mountains and deserts. Horses raced across the walls, and foxes and elephants and bulls. Wide green stone walkways lined the tunnel, and delicately carved bridges covered in trailing vines and moss soared overhead; even in winter, the moss stayed green. Priests and novitiates and pilgrims trotted and stumbled along the sidewalk, dispersing now that the dawn rite had ended. Most wore varying shades of green, and a few had painted their hands and faces.

At the far end of the tunnel, a pair of gigantic grass tortoises lumbered across the walls. Lichen and moss dripped from the edges of their shells, the grasses that grew across their backs and even onto their heads bursting with bees and blossoms. The tortoises seemed to watch us as we drove past, eyes deep and sad in their lined faces.

And then we emerged into the full dawn, light gleaming off the Great Pyramid.

Meritha swore, and dropped the visor to block out some of the light. She followed Kanady’s vehicle as Dalis pulled it around, slowing to a stop in front of a small collection of Zoemantic Vigilants. They all stood at attention, First Vigilant Armeia at their head. She had pulled her white hood down, her face covered by a pink skull. It clashed with the dark green of her armor.

Meritha might have muttered “tacky.”

Sedgewick climbed out first, followed by Meritha, fuzzy purple earmuffs securely in place. From the corner of my eye, I saw two other Vigilants climb out of Kanady and Taz’ vehicles. Sedgewick looked around, nodded at them, nodded at Armeia, and then motioned for me to follow him. I stepped out, tugging my jacket closer as the wind grabbed at me. The interior of the car had been warm; now I shivered, the jacket and sweater not quite enough to hold back the cold. I could feel it crawling up under the hem of my skirt.

I should have worn pants.

At least my ears were warm.

Taz and Kanady joined me, our Vigilants and Meritha forming a protective bubble around us.

I stepped forward, tipping my head in greeting. “First Vigilant Armeia, we have answered the Grandfather’s summons.”

She was still for a moment, hands hanging loose at her side. Then she offered an abrupt half-bow and swept her hand towards the doors of the Great Pyramid.

“Follow me. The Grandfather is waiting.”

[End Part Nine. Part Ten appears in the July issue of ev0ke.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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