Taz and Kanady ambushed us as soon as we stepped through the front door. The ravens must have known it was coming: they were lined up on the front railing and eaves, heads cocked, eyes bright with anticipation. They flapped their wings and seemed to laugh as Sedgewick hustled me out of the car, past the Vigilants patrolling the grounds, and into the house. Meritha followed a few steps behind.
No sooner had Sedgewick chanted “Chiya,” the front door popping back into place, then Taz was blocking our path, an armful of black and gold garland spilling across the floor and tangling around her legs. Kanady stood on the far side of the living room, expression grim, shiny golden balloons on golden ribbons drifting around their head.
I frowned at the boxes that covered the couch, where more garlands and stars and streamers and packages of deflated balloons waited to be unpacked. Cha-Cha was ogling one of the open boxes from the arm of the couch, the tip of her tail twitching.
“Why did you dig out the decorations?” I asked. “Winter Solstice is still a month away.”
Taz glared at me. “I was angry and I needed something to do that would cheer me up. House meeting. Dining room. Now.”
Beside me, Meritha pursed her lips. “Sounds serious. I should excuse myself.” She turned to Sedgewick. “How about that sparring session? I really wanna see your flaming sword.”
Sedgwick didn’t answer, his gaze darting between me, Taz, and Kanady.
Taz dumped the armload of garland on the floor and glared at him, then me. Kanady moved up next to her in a show of solidarity.
Two against one.
I shifted my shoulders inside the blanket. The crushed milk carton that I still had in my back pocket squeaked. My stomach, empty again, began to protest.
“Will there be ice cream at this house meeting?”
Taz sniffed. “That could be arranged.”
Kanady almost smiled. “I’m pretty sure there’s still some black raspberry in the back of the freezer.”
“Oh, I changed my mind.” Meritha bounced on her toes. “No sparring session.”
“Yes, sparring session. Ice cream later as a reward, if you defeat me.” Sedgewick tipped his head so that he could look directly at me. “Take all the time you need. We’ll be in the basement.”
I swallowed, forcing cowardice aside to return his gaze. There was still concern there, and those other things that I didn’t want to see. Had they always been there and I just hadn’t noticed? Or had his feelings towards me only recently changed?
Meritha patted my shoulder. As Sedgewick opened the door under the stairs, she followed, whispering loudly, “For black raspberry ice cream, I am so kicking your ass.”
The door clicked shut behind them.
Taz moved to the side and waved her arms, ushering me towards the dining room table. I stepped around the pile of garland, pulled the milk carton from my pocket, and carefully lowered myself into one of the chairs. Cold, late afternoon sunlight spilled across the table. I caught a flicker of wings as the ravens moved to the backyard and perched on the gazebo.
Taz sat down across from me. I fiddled with the carton while Kanady moved around in the kitchen, clanking and scraping. A minute later, they reappeared, three bowls expertly balanced in their arms.
There was barely a scoop of ice cream in each. While the black raspberry had been evenly distributed between the three of us, there apparently hadn’t been much left.
Meritha would not be happy, especially if she did kick Sedgewick’s ass. She would probably demand that Sedgewick send one of his Vigilants on a grocery run.
I smiled at the thought, imagining the conversation that would follow.
“She’s smiling,” Taz stage whispered.
“Mmm. Pretty good idea as to why.”
I glared at Kanady, tossed aside the carton, and dove into my pitiful single scoop.
Taz pushed her bowl away without a bite. “You’re being a controlling ass again.”
“Seconded,” Kanady said around a mouthful. Their bowl was already half empty.
Taz plowed ahead before I could respond. “You’ve always been like this, taking on more than you should just because you’re the head of the coven. Like we can’t handle things ourselves, whatever they might be, because our necromancy isn’t as strong as yours.”
“I have n —”
“Yes, you have.”
“That ghost in the Salvathors’ basement last month? They live three houses away. Any of us could have handled it, but you didn’t say anything. You just went over there with Sedgewick and Dalis and took care of it yourself.”
“That murder-suicide this past summer?” Kanady waved their spoon at me. “The higher souls went poltergeist? You were barely out of the hospital. You drove off with Meritha and we had no idea what was going on until you got home. And then you slept for twelve hours.”
“Or those poor Petral refugees last winter? The ones who froze to death and couldn’t move on? You went out there with Grieta before dawn.” Taz’ voice caught. “You were gone all day. You were so tired and traumatized by the time you got back that you were practically hallucinating. Remember how upset Mykal was? That’s a job for a coven, not a single necromancer.”
I shoveled the last of the ice cream into my mouth.
Taz sniffed, tugging on her hair. Her voice was starting to shake. “Last night, you insisted on interrogating whoever attacked us by yourself. Then you questioned the bones by the Skiya River without a proper anchor. You almost died. And then you almost got killed — again — when you were attacked on the way home. You can’t keep doing this, Alys.” Taz’ voice cracked again and she dropped her head, multicolored hair sweeping over her face. “We can’t keep doing this.”
“You were always like this,” Kanady said, “but it’s gotten so much worse since the bombing. Do you think that was your fault? Are you punishing yourself?”
I choked and dropped the spoon. My back spasmed. I looked away, staring blindly out the windows. The ravens stared back.
Kanady stretched their arm across the table and grabbed Taz’ hand. They looked at me, solemn, serious. “Stop blaming yourself for surviving.”
Their words bounced around inside my skull, bang, bang, bang.
I should have died. Me. The bomb was meant for me.
But I had been nervous. A refugee from Petral had murdered two Law Enforcement officers and his conviction depended on my testimony, on accurately relaying what his victims’ higher souls had told me before I helped them move on. The case had only exacerbated tensions between the people of Egleia and those who had fled north after the war; into the stronghold of the very enemy who had destroyed their home. Two whole generations — my grandparents’ war — and there was still hatred.
So Mykal had offered to ride along with me. Our anchor, our shoulder to cry on, our unofficial therapist. He listened as I confessed my concerns, my fears.
By the time we arrived at the courthouse, I was calmer. I climbed out when I saw Meritha, waved, walked towards her. Sedgewick was a few steps ahead of me, Grieta and Mykal a few steps behind.
And then noise and heat and I was bleeding on the ground, back shredded by shrapnel. Sedgewick was standing over me, his armor pockmarked, streaks of ash and blood in his hair. Terrified. And Meritha was crawling towards me, yelling, but I couldn’t hear.
I snapped back to the present, the smell of charred flesh and hot metal still strong in my nose. I could feel the tears rolling down my cheeks. Taz was crying, too, and Kanady was squeezing her hand so hard that their arm shook.
I was doing this. I was causing my family this pain. Me, my selfishness and cowardice.
“It was my fault.” I could barely hear myself, barely feel the words. “I was afraid. I was a coward. Mykal shouldn’t have been there, with me. It should have been just me.”
Kanady frowned at me. “Coward? Alys, you’re not —”
“Yes.” I drew a shaky breath, my chest tight. “Yes, I am. This, this I can do.” I waved my hand vaguely, taking in the coven house and the necropolis beneath us. “I am a necromancer. Speaker for the dead. One of the most powerful of my generation. Did you know that I assisted my first higher soul when I was only six years old? This is what I am.” I sank deeper into the blanket, shaking my head. “And then Mykal and Grieta were — then — I have to do this. I can’t allow — I can’t not do this, and I have to do it not someone else, someone who might ….”
Kanady leaned towards me. “Our coven is broken, Alys. If you keep going like this, you’ll break yourself, too. Taz and I won’t stay and watch that happen. You either start trusting us — treat us like proper necromancers, like a coven — or we leave.”
I stared at them. My mind spun round and round, trying to reject what they were saying. I remembered every incident they had mentioned, and others; so many others. How many times had Mykal pulled me aside and cautioned me against over-burdening myself?
When he was still here — and Grieta — there had been a balance. But not anymore. I was on the verge of destroying what was left of my family. The threat wasn’t just out there, an attack by terrorists and assassins. I was a threat, too. Me.
“Okay,” I whispered, the sound grating in my throat. “I’ll try. I’ll try.”
Taz drew a deep breath. “Prove it. Tell us what’s going on.”
I opened my mouth, closed it again. “I can’t. Not all of it.”
Taz groaned and flopped back in her chair, pulling free of Kanady’s grasp. She crossed her arms and glared at me. “Knew it.”
“No, it’s not that.” I desperately waved my hands, looking frantically between the two of them. “The Hag. She placed a bind on us.”
Kanady’s eyebrows shot up. “The Hag. That’s where you’ve been all afternoon?”
I nodded, hair drifting across my eyes. I shoved it away. “I reported everything that’s happened. She … um ….” I licked my lips, trying to figure out I could tell them and what had to remain secret. “I’ll tell you what I can.”
Taz sat up and pushed her bowl of melted ice cream towards me. “Start talking.”
It was approaching sunset by the time I finished. I had to keep going over in my head exactly what the Hag had forbidden me to reveal, and how that related to the information that Taz and Kanady had requested; that they deserved to know; because something terrible was happening, and there was a good chance that they would be targeted again, if only because they were around me.
I left out any and all references to the Wheel of Unbecoming. Instead, I told them that the higher souls had been stripped away through some unknown means, leaving hollow bones and bodies that were dead, but which could be ….
I wasn’t sure what the right word was. Commanded? Directed? Navigated?
Either way, the four people who had attacked the coven house last night, and the four motorcyclists who had attacked Sedgewick, Operr, and I on the road back to Egleia, were already dead. They weren’t people anymore. There were no higher souls to interrogate. They were just bodies of meat and bone and blood.
“That’s disgusting,” Taz snarled.
“Mmm,” Kanady said, leaning back in their chair. Their eyes were narrowed in thought. At some point, Cha-Cha had crept onto their lap; she was eyeballing the empty bowls, her whiskers twitching.
“Only a necromancer could remove a higher soul from a living body like that.” Taz scowled and leaned her chin on one hand. “I have no idea how, but, yeah, it has to be a necromancer. Certainly not a pyromancer, hydromancer, geomancer, or anemancer. I mean, maybe a zoemancer could do it, but, again, I have no idea how. Kanady?”
“You’re making your crossword puzzle face again, only worse.”
Kanady drew a deep breath, gaze focusing on us again. “Sorry. The bus bombing was probably meant to create a bottleneck. Trap you. But you got out of it too fast, so they had to chase you down the North Road.”
“You can thank Officer duMaryam and Operr’s driving for that.” I fiddled with the spoon, running it around the inside of one of the empty bowls. “And Meritha agrees with you. I think that’s why she’s sticking around.”
“So now what?” Taz asked.
“My mother seemed to think this all has something to do with the Burning of Suxia.”
Taz’ eyebrows danced in confusion. “That was almost six hundred years ago.”
I shrugged helplessly.
Kanady looked at Taz. “I think this falls under the binding portion of the conversation.”
Taz rolled her eyes. “I repeat: now what?”
“Well, no one knows what became of the unitaur Mijn or the Nine-Tailed Cat or Necromancer Syl.” I stuttered over his name and the lie attached to it, then plowed ahead. “But Vigilant Odressa has appeared on multiple occasions, especially to other Vigilants. I thought we might perform a Summoning, and use Sedgewick as the focal point.”
Taz shook her head. “Still don’t see how what’s happening now could possibly have ties to a war that ended six hundred years ago. But, sure.” She stood and gathered up the bowls and spoons, and even my squashed milk carton. She dumped everything in the kitchen sink with a loud clatter. “Although I’m sorry that I missed their sparring session. I was looking forward to getting out my pom poms.”
Meritha and Sedgewick had apparently finished their sparring session. The exercise mats spread across the hard basement floor to the right of the stairs were sweat-stained and slightly charred. I hadn’t heard a thing upstairs. Their session had either been unusually quiet, or my conversation with Taz and Kanady had completely absorbed my focus.
Sedgewick paced, phone pressed to his ear, his expression bordering on angry; sweat beaded his forehead and there appeared to be scratches on his armor. Meritha sat on a padded bench beneath one of the small ground-level windows, tacking away at her own phone; she had stripped down to her tank top, her hair was damp, and her expression was almost gleeful.
She looked up as we trooped down the stairs. “Totally kicked his ass,” she whispered, waving at a set of short staves that hung on the wall; they looked scorched. “That ice cream is mine.”
Sedgewick growled something and turned away, speaking quickly and quietly.
“What are you doing?” I whispered back.
“Unofficially asking my unofficial friends in the Offices of Law and Enforcement in Charith and Theleia if there have been any attacks their cities. Unofficially.”
“Why is that making you smile?”
“Because they made a wager in exchange for the information, and lost. Badly.”
“Do I want to know what the wager was?”
Meritha pursed her lips and continued to tap away. “Nope. And the answer is nope. No attacks, no bombings, no missing necromancers — at least that anyone knows about.” Her expression sobered. “So, sorry, but that makes you special.”
Sedgewick’s voice got louder, and was nearly a snarl. “Yes, ma’am. I understand. Thank you.” He slapped his phone off and shoved it into his pocket. “Meritha did not kick my ass. The First Marshall ….” He cleared his throat. “She did not have any information that would be of use to us.”
“Another Vigilant might.” I gestured towards Taz and Kanady, who waited behind me near the foot of the stairs. Cha-Cha prowled between their ankles, her tail curled into a question mark. “We’re going to perform a Summoning. Vigilant Odressa. Will you stand as the focal?”
He straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. “It would be my honor.”
Meritha looked up from her phone. “Anything I can do?”
Taz hopped down the last step and turned left towards the door of the necropolis. “Sure. You can go on an ice cream run.” With her back to the rest of the room, Taz missed Meritha’s outraged expression. She pressed her hand to the ironwood. “Achiya.”
The door shimmered out of existence. As soon as Taz stepped through, a small fire flickered to life, revealing the necropolis. It was the oldest part of the house, dug even before the foundation had been laid. A hollow sphere in the ground, the walls carefully curved, the floor gently slopping down. Large enough to hold sixteen people; four full covens, in the event such a rite should ever need to be performed. Four wooden posts, each carved with elemental symbols, marked the cardinal directions. A small altar to Osira, covered in whistles and flutes and feathers and bird bones, encircled the northern pillar; fire burned on the altar to Isiya around the southern post; pretty rocks and seeds marked Thueta’s altar to the east, while bowls of fresh water and salt water and blood and pieces of sea glass decorated Khura’s to the west. The central depression was empty; we had long since cleared away the offerings made during the brief Rite of the Ancestors at the Summer Solstice.
I turned to discover that Sedgewick had paused, hesitating, at the entrance. He was looking around, clearly trying not to stare, but failing.
Grieta. She had accompanied us in many rites over the years. But in the eight months that Sedgewick had served as our First Vigilant, we had never invited him to join us. Granted, the three of us had performed only a handful since the bombing; between my slow physical recovery and the loss of our fourth, we hadn’t had the energy, strength, or inclination. We had barely made it through the Summer Solstice rite.
That needed to change.
No more. I couldn’t just try. I had to be brave. I had to face down my own fears and whatever, whoever, was threatening my family from the outside — Taz, Kanady, Meritha, the Hag. Sedgewick. All of Egleia. They were in danger.
But I couldn’t, wouldn’t, carry this burden myself, as I had tried to carry so many in the past. Mykal had warned me, reminded me over and over again that I wasn’t alone. So had the Hag, when she had pushed me to replace our missing fourth. And so had Sedgewick, every time he offered me his hand.
Or a handkerchief to wipe away spilled chocolate sauce, so that I didn’t embarrass myself in front of the High Holy Orders.
This time, I held out my hand.
He stared at me for a moment, then reached out and wrapped his fingers around my palm. His touch was light, so I tightened my grip. He responded, fingers threading through mine. For a moment, his expression was a painful combination of hopeful and uncertain.
It made my chest hurt.
But then the hope and uncertainty were gone, replaced by a cool stoicism, professional, distant, courteous. The expression I had come to most associate with Sedgewick, except on those rare occasions when I managed to irritate him. Or until very recently, when the mask had slipped (or I had learned to see past it?), to the hunger and desire. And love.
I tugged on his arm, and he followed me into the necropolis.
[End Part Six. Part Seven will appear in the April 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]